Thousands of People's Liberation Army (PLA) veterans staged a sit-in outside the military headquarters of the ruling Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday in protest at authorities' failure to deliver promised pension, medical and social security benefits.
The protesters converged on Beijing from around a dozen cities and provinces in a concerted bid to air long-running grievances from a group that has been identified by the leadership as one of the most politically sensitive in China.
Singing "In Unity is Our Strength" and other Chinese military choruses, the veterans sat outside the ruling party's military wing, the Central Military Commission (CMC), calling for basic pensions and healthcare in their old age.
Eyewitnesses said police were preventing journalists and bystanders from taking photos of the scene, and had restrained some of the more agitated protesters.
"There are people all along the street, from all over China," an anonymous eyewitness said. "It's so tragic, really sad."
"These people are all members of the party, demobilized, but they were let go with just 400 yuan (U.S.$60) apiece," he said. "The government won't do anything for them."
Many veterans say they joined the PLA on the promise of guaranteed civil service jobs after demobilization, but that the jobs never materialized.
'We were unfairly treated'
Security was tight around the CMC compound, as the authorities sent in thousands of troops and armed police, although no clashes were reported.
One protester estimated that as many as 30,000 veterans were gathered at the height of Tuesday's protest.
"We had more than 20,000 here today, nearly 30,000," the protester, who gave only a surname Gao, said. "I saw this was happening so I came along. I have nothing to eat or drink. I don't know what to do."
"I signed up to the army in 1976 in Beijing, and was demobilized in 1988," he said. "It wasn't too bad to start with, but then they started laying people off in the factories, and we were just given 400 yuan and told to leave."
"That was never going to be enough. We have been unfairly treated," Gao said. "I gave my best years to the army, and I have nothing to show for it."
A fellow protester surnamed Hu said many of the protesters were from very different eras in China's modern history.
"There are many, multi-layered problems represented here," Hu told RFA. "Today we have here demobilized soldiers including lower-ranking officers, non-commissioned officers, and regular soldiers [as well as] soldiers who participated in nuclear tests, and the Vietnam War."
Many veterans of China's brief 1979 border war with Vietnam and the Korean War (1950-1953), live in extreme hardship in old age, they have told RFA.
"They are from a very broad time-span, and there are are huge inequalities in the way they are treated [after leaving active service]," Hu said, adding that frequent personnel changes at the party's military arm, the Central Military Commission (CMC), have led to yawning inconsistencies in provision for the PLA's veterans.
"The personnel at the CMC keep changing, and nobody lower down the ranks is willing to sort out the mess that they make," Hu said. "They just keep passing the buck lower and lower down ... until it's well-nigh impossible to get anything done."
A second protester surnamed Wang, a veteran of the 1979 Vietnam border skirmish, said he hasn't received any of the benefits promised when he signed up.
"It's pretty unfair right now, for all of us who took part in that campaign," Wang said. "They issued a directive in 2007 drawing a distinction between those of us who live in towns and those of us in rural areas."
"They pretty much dropped us city-dwellers; we get nothing, and we have to try to get by on social subsistence payouts," he said. "You have to claim social subsistence before you become eligible for any care by the state at all."
"We are very upset about this," Wang said, adding that he knows of a number of veterans who were prevented by local government officials from traveling to Beijing to take part in the protest .
In September 2015, Beijing police detained more than 1,000 veterans who gathered outside government buildings in protest over similar issues.
And thousands of disabled veterans staged a smaller protest outside the CMC last February, ahead of the annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.