BEIJING • China's defence ministry pledged yesterday to improve living standards for military veterans after thousands of disgruntled ex-soldiers gathered outside army offices in Beijing for a rare protest this week.
China has laid off more than a million troops since the 1980s and vowed last year to cut 300,000 more from its standing army of more than two million personnel.
Tens of thousands of army veterans have staged protests in recent years against officials whom they accuse of denying them benefits. But the demonstration in Beijing on Tuesday was unusual because of its central location and size.
Reports said that 10,000 former soldiers were involved. Pictures posted online showed large crowds wearing army uniforms.
The defence ministry confirmed in a fax to Agence France-Presse yesterday that "retired soldiers gathered near the offices of the Central Military Commission to express problems relating to employment and livelihood".
It said that the authorities had issued policies on improving living standards for retired military staff, and that further efforts would be made to "gradually solve the problem".
LEFT WITH NOTHING
I signed up to the army in 1976 in Beijing and was demobilised in 1988. It wasn't too bad to start with, but then they started laying off people in the factories, and we were just given 400 yuan and told to leave. I gave my best years to the army, and I have nothing to show for it.
MR GAO, a protester.
Veterans' protests were one of the biggest threats to social stability in the country, Dr Xue Gangling, dean of the China University of Politics and Law, told local media in 2013.
State media said last year that Beijing would launch a new army pension scheme after President Xi Jinping announced the reduction in troop numbers. It was the latest in a series of giant cuts to the bloated People's Liberation Army (PLA) as Beijing seeks to craft a more efficient fighting force.
But the PLA Daily newspaper said at the time that the difficulties of implementing the latest reductions were "unprecedented". Many laid-off soldiers, with little formal education, have found it difficult to readjust to normal society and find jobs in the civilian economy.
Singing In Unity Is Our Strength and other Chinese military choruses, the veterans sat outside the ruling party's military wing, the Central Military Commission, calling for basic pensions and healthcare in their old age, reported the Radio Free Asia website.
One protester, who gave only his surname Gao, told the website: "I signed up to the army in 1976 in Beijing and was demobilised in 1988.
"It wasn't too bad to start with, but then they started laying off people in the factories, and we were just given 400 yuan (S$82) and told to leave.
"I gave my best years to the army, and I have nothing to show for it."