For Yu Shuiping and other Chinese veterans, the country they served has yet to show its gratitude. Fed up with paltry pensions and benefits, they're taking to the streets, hoping to shame the government into recognising what they say is its obligation to those who battled in harsh conditions along the country's borders. While largely peaceful, the sporadic protests amplify concerns over labor unrest and threaten to undermine rank-and-file support for Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's campaign to modernize the world's largest-standing military by attracting better qualified and more highly motivated soldiers. "We support the party and the government, and we don't oppose the party or hate society," Yu said in a phone interview from his home in the central province of Hunan. "We just want better treatment." Yu has for years been petitioning the government for more benefits, although he declined to discuss the specifics of his efforts. Activist Huang Qi, who tracks unrest in China, estimates that veterans have staged as many as 50 protests this year, highlighted by a demonstration last week outside the Defense Ministry in central Beijing, where such actions are extremely rare. Surrounded by police and plain-clothes officers, roughly 1,000 veterans from across the country, many dressed in their old uniforms, sang and marched for hours before being taken away in buses. Behind the heavy security response lies the specter of street action by laid-off workers that has long haunted China's communist leaders, obsessed with preserving social stability at all costs. Following a wave of worker protests in the early 2000s, China faces a new round of cuts in coal mines, steel mills and other state firms, throwing millions of workers on the scrapheap. Such veterans' protests go back decades and are now facilitated by adept use of social media.
The government censors information about them and veterans are highly reluctant to discuss their plight with foreign media for fear of being accused of disloyalty. Thus far, however, their actions have borne little fruit. According to most accounts, the central government's response has been to fob them off on local authorities, who then fail to act on their complaints. The authorities work to ensure some veterans are satisfied, thus keeping them from forming a united front, said Neil Diamant, a professor of Asian law and society at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, who studies the veterans' issues. They also arrest emerging veterans' leaders, infiltrate the groups and monitor their communications, detaining large numbers if necessary, he said.