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Demobilised soldiers could prove roadblock to China’s military reforms

On the same day earlier this month that China’s Defence Minister, Chang Wanquan, welcomed foreign military officials to the 2016 Xiangshan Forum, battalion-strong groups of Chinese civilians dressed in camouflaged uniforms surrounded the administrative headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) housing the Central Military Commission (CMC) along Chang’an Avenue in Beijing.

On the same day earlier this month that China’s Defence Minister, Chang Wanquan, welcomed foreign military officials to the 2016 Xiangshan Forum, battalion-strong groups of Chinese civilians dressed in camouflaged uniforms surrounded the administrative headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) housing the Central Military Commission (CMC) along Chang’an Avenue in Beijing.

While media accounts differ on the actual turnout of petitioners — with some reports indicating a few hundred while others claim as many as 27,000 — the sizeable group of PLA veterans singing military songs and waving national flags was nonetheless a sight to behold, considering the stability-obsessed Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aversion to collective mass activities, both well-organised and which also span China’s geographical bounds. Accordingly, the protesters hailed from as many as nine different provinces.

As one of the largest mass incidents in the capital in recent history, how so many people could somehow find their way to the Bayi Building right under the CCP’s well-oiled internal surveillance system before changing into military fatigues on arrival remains a mystery.

Whereas protests by demobilised soldiers over remuneration and pensions are not new, the amassing of the regime’s former armed servants in Beijing’s main thoroughfare, seeking redress over perceived violations to their retirement benefits and “corruption related to their job allocation” nevertheless points to the formidable challenges that lie ahead before China’s military corps can evolve into a fighting force comparable with the world’s other advanced militaries.

Change and Continuity in P.L.A. Reforms

The petitioners at this event (believed to be PLA officers who had been decommissioned during an earlier streamlining exercise between 1993 and 2001) had left military service under the previous policy of receiving lump-sum payoffs.

Purportedly upset over what they now consider to be meagre compensation, a lack of financial assistance from the local authorities, as well as their current state of unemployment — after the enterprises they had been reassigned to either went bankrupt or were restructured — the veterans thus congregated in the capital to bring their plight to the attention of leaders at the apex of Chinese politics.

Of their peaceful sit-in, conflicting accounts point to negotiations between the veterans’ representatives and officials from the State Bureau for Letters and Calls (the body responsible for handling public petitions) and the CMC General Office.

Some Chinese reports claimed that Mr Meng Jianzhu — Zhou Yongkang’s successor as China’s domestic security supremo — who was in Jiangxi at the time of the protest, was concerned enough to comment on the incident.

Alluding to the lack of research and policy planning by the relevant bureaucracies in the 1990s, Mr Meng reportedly referred to the veterans as “comrades of the regime” and who “ought to be in the same camp (as the regime)”, before emphasising the authorities shall “resolutely” refrain from treating the ex-soldiers as threats to “stability maintenance” ( weiwen).

Following the proposed troop cuts of 300,000 announced by Mr Xi Jinping last September, much has been made of the importance of looking after the livelihood of soon-to-be retrenched soldiers in the latest round of reforms — with the Chinese leader himself having referred to those affected as “treasures of the party and state”, and declaring that “party committees and governments at all levels should place special emphasis on the employment of demobilised officers”. According to Mr Xi, “rejecting to provide positions for demobilised officers under any pretext is not allowed”.

But if efforts hitherto to provide for Chinese veterans have been problematic, questions over the ability of local officialdom to attend to the newest batches of decommissioned PLA personnel ought to be taken seriously.

Throwing A New Spanner in the Works

The sensitivities of dealing with former guardians of the party-state who carry the potential of compromising its inner workings may explain the implicit acknowledgement by the authorities of the “rights protection” ( weiquan) of the veterans and its uncharacteristic conciliatory approach.

Moreover, Mr Meng’s considered calls not to push the former soldiers to “the opposite side” — if he had indeed said that — add a new perspective to the outlook for China’s latest military modernisation drive.

Notwithstanding the authoritative commentaries in the PLA Daily stipulating that the key source of resistance to the reforms “comes from within”, the protest this month highlights how former members of the CCP’s coercive forces can further fuel the resistance of those still serving.

Put simply, how the party-state has treated its veterans will have a bearing on those 300,000 soldiers who have, or are about to, lose their rice bowls, as well as shape their perception of, and response to, promises of a smooth transition back to civilian life.

Uncertainty in their future prospects — under the spectre of China’s slowing economic growth — cannot be entirely ruled out.

As things currently stand, there is no official body in China analogous to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, with local authorities responsible instead for veteran welfare, while payouts also vary across regions.

This cannot be good for PLA morale; nor does it support its efforts to recruit China’s best and brightest. Looking further ahead, the PLA’s status as the CCP’s last line of defence against its rule may also become less straightforward.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

James Char is Senior Analyst with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Along with Richard A. Bitzinger, he is the editor of Reshaping the People’s Liberation Army since the 18th Party Congress: Politics, Policymaking and Professionalism. A version of this article first appeared in the Pacific Forum CSIS Pacnet newsletter.

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