- - Monday, June 29, 2020

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, during a regular press conference on June 22, was asked to confirm the number of casualties China had suffered in the recent clash (with India) in the Galwan Valley. Far from giving out the exact figure, he did not even acknowledge that there were casualties on the Chinese side, saying “I have no information to offer.”

Yet again, when the question was posed the next day (June 23), Mr. Zhao avoided giving any details from the Chinese side, but was quick to retort that Indian media reports claiming that at least 40 Chinese soldiers were killed was “false information.”

Incidentally, it was the same spokesman who gave (June 19) a detailed “step-by-step account of the Galwan clash (the Chinese version, of course) and China’s position on settling this incident.”  

Even a week after the incident China has refused to publicly admit that there had been casualties on its side, while India paid last homage to its martyrs with full state honors.

What country does not even acknowledge the martyrdom of its uniformed soldiers at its borders, let alone pay them a respectable last homage? It is China, which reels under the fear that the admittance that it had lost troops, that too more in number than its opponent, could lead to such major trouble and domestic unrest, that the very regime of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could be put at stake.

At the root of this fear is the simmering resentment running in the hearts and minds of 57 million veterans of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

If this is the treatment meted out by the CCP regime to the martyrs of today, imagine the plight of PLA veterans, many of whom had participated in the bloody 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War or the Korean War. They have been holding frequent mass protests across China for years now, hoping to shame the government into recognizing its obligation toward those who battled along the country’s borders in the past.

All they seek is better health care, pensions and jobs, as a mark of due gratitude for their service to the nation. Shockingly however, the country which has the world’s largest army, does not have a central agency to administer pensions and other benefits to its veterans. Resultantly, they are forced to depend on local governments for pensions, medical care and other basic benefits.

However, due to wide disparity in the financial standings of the local governments, there is no standard or uniformity in what the veterans receive. After having given their youth and shed blood for the country, the veterans find themselves left by the CCP to the mercy of often corrupt local officials, making them feel like “donkeys slaughtered after they are too old to work a grindstone.”

The ever-increasing veterans’ protests across the country alerted the CCP’s central leadership to take note and adopt corrective measures, lest it leads to widespread organized dissent and social unrest. In April 2018, the Chinese government inaugurated the first-ever Ministry of Veteran Affairs tasked with establishing a centralized system and policies on veteran affairs, including helping former military personnel find jobs.

However, there is still no clarity on who will pay them their benefits, and reemployment woes have only increased given PRC President Xi Jinping’s 2015 decision to majorly downsize and reorganize the army by cutting 300,000 posts.

In face of the potential of organized veteran protests to mobilize the current service men and women, in April of 2017, China’s Ministry of Defense, among its larger efforts of “military reform” orchestrated by Xi Jinping, terminated the old system of China’s army unit numbers and patches and adopted a new one. This change has made it more difficult for the protesting veterans to identify their affinities in the military forces and make appeals to them.

Separately, fearful of organized mass protests, the Chinese authorities have subjected those veterans found participating in protests to suppression, surveillance, detentions and even beatings. There have been several instances of mysterious deaths of veterans who have been actively petitioning the government for their dues. Media mentions of veteran issues are also strictly censored in the country.

All this is a far cry from the reverence these PLA veterans once elicited from the CCP, leading them to now even voice regret for having served the army. If such negative sentiments of the veterans is coupled with the rhetoric that the CCP leadership of today does not even acknowledge the lives laid by its soldiers at its borders, referring to the Galwan Valley causalities, the rank-and-file support for CCP leader President Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, would be at grave threat.

It could also adversely impact Mr. Xi’s ambitious goal of modernizing the PLA by 2035 and to become a top-tier military by 2050, by failing to attract better qualified and highly motivated soldiers.

The PLA has long been a key pillar of the CCP’s power. If the sentiments of the serving PLA cadres are hurt and they get together with the millions of disgruntled veterans (which may be facilitated by those within the PLA who are already unhappy with Mr. Xi — and there are thousands of them, such as those who were hurt by Mr. Xi’s move to separate PLA from commercial activities), they could form a formidable force capable of challenging Mr. Xi’s leadership. 

Significantly, the CCP leadership cannot afford to undermine the veterans’ potential to launch a collective and “armed” anti-regime action. Hence, the continuing incidence of veterans’ protests, despite significant coercive pressure and bureaucratic measures, is a source of intense anxiety for Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership.

• Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

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