Chinese Military Veterans Skeptical Over President's Promise to 'Protect Their Rights'

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War veterans watch the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress on television at a bookstore in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Oct. 18, 2017.
War veterans watch the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress on television at a bookstore in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Oct. 18, 2017.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called in a recent speech for a new agency to protect the rights of People's Liberation Army (PLA) veterans, thousands of whom have staged mass protests in Beijing since last year in protest at a lack of pensions and other promised benefits.

But veterans said they are waiting to see if the agency will act as their protector, or as just another persecutor.

"We will set up an agency that will manage veterans and protect their legal rights and interests," Xi told the 19th National Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in his plan for the next five years in office.

"We want to make a career in the military one that is revered and respected by all."

PLA veterans have been identified by the leadership as one of the most politically sensitive groups in China.

This time last year, thousands of demobilized PLA personnel converged on Beijing from across China, staging a vocal protest outside the headquarters of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission (CMC), which Xi chairs.

Singing "In Unity is Our Strength" and other Chinese military choruses, the veterans, some of whom had fought in in the Korean war (1950-1953), wore their old uniforms and stood peacefully, calling for pensions, healthcare and other demobilization benefits they said were promised but not delivered.

Any bid to organize has since triggered nationwide security alerts via the "stability maintenance" system, which targets peaceful protesters, petitioners and critics of the government.

A PLA veteran from the central province of Hunan who gave only his surname Tang cautiously welcomed the move, but said he is concerned the new agency could be use to exert further government control over demobilized members of the armed forces.

"No policy has yet been put forward regarding how these rights will be protected," Tang said. "The most important part is protecting our legal rights and interests."

"Old people still need food to eat and clothes to wear, so if there is no guarantee of a basic income, then this will be meaningless," he said.

Honoring promises

The veterans are calling on the authorities to abide by promises made to them before they signed up to fight in China's short border war with Vietnam in 1979.

Clause 3 of the Military Pensions Priority Regulations requires governments to ensure that the standard of living and social situation of demobilized PLA soldiers doesn't fall below the national average.

Other veterans are citing official document No. 75 issued by China's cabinet, the State Council, in 1978 promising to find jobs for demobilized military personnel.

Tang said many of those who volunteered for the 1979 border war did so on the basis of promises that jobs would be found for them when the war was over.

He said the government is claiming that their redundancy payments amounting to tens of thousands of yuan (thousands of U.S. dollars) meant that its obligations have been met.

And a PLA veteran surnamed Lin from the southern province of Guangdong said he currently receives a monthly pension payout of 590 yuan (U.S. $89), as well as health insurance paid for by the government.

But many of his fellow veterans lack even that basic level of support, Lin said.

"I want the government to pay a bit more attention to this issue, to those veterans who can't buy their own insurance," Lin said. "We gave our labor on behalf of our country and the Communist Party when we were young, and we just want something we can rely on, now that we're old."

"I think this is a reasonable request," he said.

'Stability maintenance'

PLA veterans who have taken part in previous protest events have been targeted by "stability maintenance" operations across China ahead of the 19th party congress, however.

Earlier this month, Guangdong veteran Chen Fengqiang disappeared in Zhuhai city which under round-the-clock surveillance by "stability maintenance" officials, his son told RFA.

"He was in their car at the time, on his way downtown, and then he disappeared," Chen's son said. "My uncle called me to say that he was in the police station, and that he is believed to be under illegal detention."

"This is definitely to do with the 19th party congress, to stop him from petitioning and so on. They are just locking him up on a pretext," he said.

Last month, China's censors canceled the release of Youth, a movie by top director Feng Xiaogang, following "discussions with the film administration bureau and other relevant parties," according to a statement from Feng’s production house.

Political commentators said the film may have been ditched because its coming-of-age plotline is also in part a tribute to veterans of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, many of whom are now living in extreme hardship and joining the recent spate of mass protests.

The mass protest outside the CMC on Oct. 11, 2016 shocked the authorities, who ordered provincial chiefs to Beijing to begin escorting the disgruntled protesters home.

And a follow-up protest last February outside the party's disciplinary arm also highlighted local governments' failure to deliver promised pension, medical and social security benefits as promised.

While officials from the CMC ordered provincial and city leaders to Beijing to address the crisis, the veterans say promises that changes would begin to be implemented from Jan. 1 haven't been kept.

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gu Jirou and Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.





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