Army veteran protests pose political challenge for Chinese president

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Retired Chinese soldiers have taken to the streets to protest against meagre pensions and a lack of support, posing a political challenge for President Xi Jingping.

Mr Xi’s affinity for the military is one of the pillars of his image, and he is often shown clad in battle fatigues, inspecting troops, praising their service and hailing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as key to the country’s rising global power.

In sharp contrast to this, more than 1,000 retired soldiers, including locals and many others from around the country, descended on local government offices last week in the eastern city of Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province.

For four days, they occupied a public plaza and a street, singing and chanting as they demanded answers over the alleged beating of a fellow veteran by government-hired thugs after he petitioned for better benefits.

Police cleared the square in the early hours of Sunday with relatively little violence, but scenes of paramilitary police and armoured vehicles lining Zhenjiang’s streets further exacerbated the fraught relationship between the government and disgruntled veterans.

An image of Xi Jinping inspecting troops
Visitors walk past photos of Chinese president Xi Jinping visiting troops during an exhibition to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (AP)

Li Xiao, a 63-year-old former artillery soldier who drove more than 120 miles on Friday to take part in events in Zhenjiang, said: “What the Zhenjiang police did this week, clearing the scene by force, it’s illegal.”

He said he wanted to show support for the protesters from the sidelines, saying: “History will be the judge.”

Although veterans have been petitioning for decades for improved pensions, jobs and medical care upon leaving the PLA, frustration has been bubbling in recent months. Part of the problem is that local governments are ordered by the central government to provide greater compensation and jobs for veterans, but are not given extra funding, Prof Diamant said.

In March, Mr Xi oversaw the establishment of a ministry of veterans’ affairs to address longstanding grievances, but former soldiers have been frustrated by the lack of substantial change.

Mr Li said: “We were delighted when the ministry was created, it was the only wish in our entire lives.

“But because of their laziness, their incompetence, they haven’t come up with a single substantial law or policy for us.”

Retired soldiers from around the country have gathered at least twice in recent months for similar protests to the Zhenjiang demo – once in central China in June and a few weeks before that in southern Guangdong province, following reports that veterans were roughed up by government-hired thugs.

Authorities were likely alarmed when hundreds of veterans materialised in Beijing in 2016 for a sit-in in front of PLA headquarters.

The challenge to Beijing’s ability to manage this resentment is likely to continue after China announced in 2015 it would reduce the size of the armed forces by 300,000 troops, adding last year that it would downsize its ground forces further while investing in its ability to project power abroad.

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