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An elderly veteran of the 1950-53 Korean War looks for the graves of friends at a memorial cemetery on April 4, 2009 in Dandong, in northeast China's Liaoning province across from the North Korean border town of Siniuju.
A seldom-seen aspect of China's ambitious military modernization is the plight of demobilized soldiers who have fallen through the cracks -- and who have Beijing worried. Many veterans are taking to the streets to protest lack of jobs, health care and other benefits.
China has embarked on an ambitious program to streamline its military, cutting manpower and improving technology. But some demobilized soldiers have fallen through the cracks and have taken to the streets to protest lack of jobs, health care and other benefits. It is a seldom-seen aspect of China's military modernization that has the Chinese government worried.
Some of the demobilized soldiers can be found milling around a military complaints office in central Beijing. Some are dressed in fatigues and bedecked with medals. They are mostly veterans of China's civil war, the Korean War and China's 1979 border war against Vietnam. Another group includes members of Unit 8023, a secretive corps in charge of China's nuclear weapons tests, some of whom suffer as a result of exposure to radiation.
Veterans Lack Protections
One recent morning at the complaints center, the 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.
"I treat the Communist Party like my mother and father," Wu howls, "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.' "
Yang Junqi is a decorated veteran with similar claims. During China's border war against Vietnam, 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. He says that if his comrades had not pulled him out of a gully and taken him for medical treatment, he would have died in Vietnam.
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.
"My friends told me that my employer duped me," Yang says. "They said my employer faked my retirement in order to give my job to one of their friends."
Yang has been protesting his treatment for the past 10 years, traveling to Beijing with a former machine gunner from his hometown who served with him in Vietnam. He says local officials in his native Henan province have ignored instructions from Beijing to restore his job and benefits.
"Disabled veterans are like laid-off workers," Yang observes bitterly. "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."
Protests Largely Hidden, Unreported
Despite efforts to create a better-equipped, leaner military, China still has 2.3 million men and women in active service and many more already demobilized. It's not that their plight is necessarily worse than that of veterans in other countries.
But their occasional riots and demonstrations are largely hidden and can't be reported by the Chinese media.
At a press conference last year, senior Col. Shi Chujing, of the army's General Political Department, said that the government is working on the problem.
"China attaches great importance to the demobilization of the officers and servicemen," he told reporters. "We have put forward a number of preferential policies and measures, and the officers and soldiers who have been discharged are satisfied with the services."
Shi 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.
"The individual cases are normal cases during the process of reform and opening up," Shi said. "We are a populous country, and with the deepening of reform and opening up, these kind of issues will be resolved."
Fear That 'Soldiers Will Unite And Organize'
But Yao Huiquan, a cheerful old soldier in an olive greatcoat, 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.
"They organize according to rank: squad, platoon, company, battalion and regiment," says Yao, a regular at the military complaints office. "Then they go hold sit-ins in front of the Central Military Commission."
Yao says military officials have sought to punish him for his organizing work.
"I've been beaten up twice by agents of the Central Military Commission," Yao says, still smiling. "They fear that we soldiers will unite and organize. There are 10 million of us, and that's no small number, right?"
This year, Communist Party officials warned of three emerging threats to stability: underground labor unions, protesting farmers and dissatisfied veterans. Of course, farmers, workers and soldiers once formed the background of China's communist revolution. Now, officials say protesters among these groups must be suppressed. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.