ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
China has embarked on an ambitious program to streamline its military, cutting manpower and improving technology. But recently, its experienced problems with veterans, some of whom have taken to the streets to protest lack of jobs, health care and other benefits.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on a seldom-seen aspect of China's military modernization that has the Chinese government worried.
Mr. WU WEI: (Veteran): (Foreign language spoken)
ANTHONY KUHN: Scores of Chinese veterans are milling around a military complaints office. Some of them are wearing fatigues and medals. These protesters are cautious and silent, except for a round man with a wispy beard, an unemployed and homeless veteran named Wu Wei. He says the government ignores his pleas for help.
Mr. WEI: (Through Translator) I treat the Communist Party like my mother and father, but they make me feel like an orphan. Nobody will listen to reason. The people at the complaints office say, go ahead, complain to whomever you want.
KUHN: Yang Junqi is a decorated veteran with similar claims. During China's border war against Vietnam in 1979, he killed three enemy soldiers, wounded seven, captured one and saved eight of his comrades. He was wounded three times and still suffers from his injuries.
After the war, Yang says he was given a job at the local tax bureau, but he was later sent home. When he asked for an explanation, he was told that he had been granted an early retirement due to illness. Yang said he didn't have any illness and he hadn't applied to retire.
Mr. YANG JUNQI: (Through translator) My friends told me that my employer duped me. They said my employer faked my retirement in order to give my job to one of their friends.
KUHN: Yang has been protesting his treatment for the past 10 years. He says local officials in his native Henan province have ignored instructions from Beijing to restore his job and benefits.
Mr. YANG: (Through translator) Disabled veterans are like laid-off workers. They're a disadvantaged group. The government has issued regulations to protect them, but these regulations are ignored at the local level. Not only are veterans not protected, they are often oppressed.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
KUHN: What's different about us soldiers, asks a popular song. Well, there are certainly a lot of them, 2.3 million in active service and many more than that already demobilized. It's not that their plight is necessarily worse than that of veterans in other countries, but that plight is hidden and their occasional riots and demonstrations can't be reported by the Chinese media.
At a press conference last year, senior Colonel Shi Chujing of the army's General Political Department said that the government is working on the problem.
Colonel SHI CHUJING (General Political Department, Chinese Army): (Through translator) China attaches great importance to the demobilization of the officers and servicemen. We have put forward a number of preferential policies and measures, and the officers and the soldiers who have been discharged are satisfied with the services.
KUHN: He suggested that given the size of China's armed forces and the scale of the reforms, there are bound to be a few disgruntled grunts.
Col. CHUJING: (Through translator) The individual cases are normal cases during the process of reform and opening up because, you see, in China, we are a populist country, and with the deepening of reform and opening up, these kind of issues will be resolved.
KUHN: But Yao Huiquan, a cheerful old soldier in an olive great coat, disagrees that the problem is a minor one. He says what officials fear most about protesting veterans is their discipline. Yao has watched the veterans in action.
Mr. YAO HUIQUAN: (Through translator) They organize according to rank: squad, platoon, company, battalion and regiment. Then they go hold sit-ins in front of the Central Military Commission.
KUHN: Yao says military officials have sought to punish him for his organizing work.
Mr. HUIQUAN: (Through translator) I've been beaten up twice by agents of the Central Military Commission. They fear that we soldiers will unite and organize. There are 10 million of us, and that's no small number, right?
KUHN: This year, Communist Party officials have warned of three emerging threats to stability: underground labor unions, protesting farmers and dissatisfied veterans. Of course, farmers, workers and soldiers once formed the backbone of China's communist revolution. Now officials say protesters among these groups must be suppressed.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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