Xin Lin | Radio Free Asia
Around 1,000 veterans from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) converged on Beijing during the New Year holiday, clashing with police as a promised deadline for action to alleviate their poverty expired.
After around 10,000 former PLA servicemen and women gathered outside the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission last October in protest over a lack of promised pension and healthcare benefits, some local authorities promised to reply to veterans’ complaints by Jan. 1, 2017 at the latest.
Protesters told RFA at the weekend that they had gathered once more in the capital after their local governments failed to keep their promises.
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.
A veteran from the eastern province of Shandong, who asked not to be named, said he had be detained as police swooped on peaceful protesters, rounding them up and forcing them to board buses heading to unofficial detention centers on the city’s outskirts.
“I was detained alongside my former comrade from the Vietnam war,” the veteran said. “They said we were breaking the law, but they detained us in Sanpianzi Alley, which is a normal place to be when you’re lodging a complaint.”
“My comrade was criminally detained, and he was told that this was arranged by higher-up,” he said.
“I told them that we are living in extreme hardship, and that I might as well go to prison, because at least I’d have something to sustain me in my old age,” he said. “I said I’d like to stay in the police station, eating their food.” But he added: “I’d say this protest wasn’t a success.”
The veteran was among large crowds of veterans who had been gathering near central government complaints departments since Dec. 28, sources told RFA. Photos of the scene shown to RFA showed long rows of elderly men in military uniform outside government buildings, with rows of police vehicles and buses nearby.
A second protester, who also asked to remain anonymous, said the authorities had failed to deliver on promises made in October. “Back [in October], they promised the veterans that if we left Beijing, they would make a subsistence payout to us, but we haven’t received it,” he said. “There are many, many reasons why we are here.”
“People’s circumstances vary; some of them are sick, but the army won’t give them medical treatment, and just send them back home again,” he said, adding that many veterans are falling between the cracks of China’s household registration, or “hukou,” system, which is the key to accessing social services.
“But the local government won’t do anything because they say that our household registration is still with the army, so effectively we have no hukou now,” the second protester said.
“But regardless of whether they have rural or military hukou, many veterans are having problems just getting by now,” he said.
The government ordered provincial-level officials to Beijing on Oct. 13 to begin escorting thousands of disgruntled military veterans back to their hometowns after a sudden mass protest sent shockwaves through the corridors of power.
The veterans have been complaining and protesting for year’s, but last year’s protests were among the largest organized demonstrations seen in the Chinese capital in years, and come from a group regarded as highly politically sensitive by the government.
The veterans, most of whom are protesting local governments’ failure to deliver on promises of jobs, pensions and healthcare after demobilization, wore camouflage uniforms, sang army songs and held banners from cities and regions across China.
Crackdown on protests
The Shandong veteran said the authorities appear to be stepping up their crackdown on such protests, however.
“I think if anything they are cracking down more heavily, not less,” he said. “They are really frightened of the pressure that we bring to bear; we in Shandong can see this very clearly.”
“They are terrified of collective petitions, so that’s why we must support these petitioning actions, so make them more afraid,” he said.
He said a former Shandong petition organizer, Lin Jiuli, was jailed 18 months ago for his role in organizing a similar event.
“They haven’t let him out to this day, though they’ve had a lot of court hearings, but the prosecution hasn’t enough evidence to convict him,” he said. “Now they are in negotiation with the family to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital, but the family won’t agree to locking him up in there.”
Thousands of veterans 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.
Among those who spoke to RFA were demobilized rank-and-file soldiers, lower-ranking officers, non-commissioned officers, as well as soldiers who participated in nuclear tests, and the Vietnam War.
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