October 21, 2016 7:00 pm JST
China up close

Xi Jinping loses face as former soldiers protest

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- In a humiliating twist for Chinese President Xi Jinping, an army of men in camouflage uniforms recently put on an extended demonstration near Beijing's Zhongnanhai, the country's political nerve center.

Apparently disgruntled about their current living conditions, they gathered in front of the massive Bayi Dalou, or Bayi Building, 4km to 5km west of Zhongnanhai.

With high-spirited voices, they sang military songs from Oct. 11 to Oct. 12.

The building houses the Central Military Commission as well as the Ministry of National Defense. The commission is the top military supervisory organ for the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army.

The protesters were not students calling for democratization. They were middle-aged or older retired soldiers. Some of them were white-haired. The demonstration was well-disciplined. The veterans refused to talk to foreign reporters.

Smartphone images of the extremely rare demonstration, taken by ordinary citizens, went viral. But they were deleted one after another by China's internet and social media monitors.

Unprecedented siege

The number of participants swelled to more than 1,000 at one point -- in a restricted military area from which ordinary people are strictly barred.

To be sure, there have been small-scale rallies in front of other military-related facilities in Beijing. But this was unprecedented: Former soldiers, in camouflage uniforms, massing in front of an important military landmark.

Many of those who converged are said to have retired from the military before the beginning of the 21st century. They receive small retirement allowances and have had difficulty finding steady employment. They have also fallen through the nation's health care gaps.

Since the start of the century, China's economy has grown rapidly, and the working conditions of military personnel have improved gradually. But the former soldiers who descended on the Bayi Building have been left behind.

China does not have a conscription system. Military members, including retired service members, reservists and militiamen, used to all be in the same boat.

Despite their now somewhat higher pay, military personnel have seen their post-retirement welfare program significantly curtailed, potentially sowing the seeds of discontent among them.

Military personnel used to be widely revered in China, but perhaps not so much since some in their ranks violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in June 1989.

There are reports that some military personnel involved in the brutal crackdown also participated in this month's demonstration. Some veterans who fought the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War reportedly also took part in the demonstration.

Some see the PLA, the country's military, as "an instrument of violence" underpinning the Communist Party's one-party rule. It will not be easy to punish any of these "instruments" who took part in the recent demonstration.

Yet, Chinese authorities' failure to properly handle the issue could lead to large-scale unrest. The protesters purportedly represent disgruntled elements across the country and have more than 20,000 supporters.

In mature democratic countries, retired soldiers are generally treated in ways that do not stir up unrest. But in Communist Party-ruled China, there are no means by which groups can demand better treatment.

The demonstration sent shock waves through Zhongnanhai. As a result, high-level officials in charge of the regions the protesters came from were summoned to Beijing, according to a local media report that quoted a protest leader.

Tightening screws

Xi came to power as the Communist Party's general secretary at the party's last national congress, in the autumn of 2012. He assumed the post of Chinese president in the spring of 2013. When Xi took the party's helm, he also became chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Xi has conducted an unusual flurry of inspections of PLA units in the past few months, an apparent bid to tighten the screws on the powerful military. But as the recent demonstration shows, he has yet to fully cement his grip on the entire armed forces.

It should also be noted that the retired soldiers' unprecedented show of force was not pre-empted. This, too, is highly unusual.

Since being inaugurated, President Xi has been using a blistering anti-corruption campaign in a power struggle against political foes and to consolidate his power.

Among those who have fallen victim to Xi's anti-corruption crusade are Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission. They were top uniformed officers. Guo was sentenced to life in jail, while Xu died of cancer in March 2015 while in detention.

On Oct. 10 -- a day before the retired soldiers' demonstration kicked off -- a political meeting for the entire military was held in the Bayi Building. The meeting was called to figure out how to root out the negative effects of the corruption cases involving the two former military strongmen.

The former soldiers apparently wanted to convey their complaints to the military cadres who had come to Beijing from various regions. They also likely wanted the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- the Communist Party's top decision-making body, led by Xi -- to take notice.

Many former military officials, including Guo and Xu underlings, have also been netted by Xi's anti-corruption drive.

There is a possibility that disgruntled military bureaucrats were aware of what was about to take place and deliberately failed to pre-empt the former soldiers' demonstration.

As Premier Li Keqiang has publicly acknowledged, there is a widespread phenomenon in China's governmental offices and other workplaces -- people are slacking off, scared of winding up in Xi's dragnet or disgruntled by it.

Even a follow-up demonstration would come as no surprise.

The retired soldiers' singing came ahead of an important Communist Party meeting in Beijing. The sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee is to begin on Monday.

"As a result of the siege of the Bayi Dalou by former soldiers, President Xi lost face ahead of the sixth plenary session," one observer said.

Xi left Beijing on the morning of Oct. 13 for a tour of foreign countries, including Cambodia. The other Politburo Standing Committee members played a central role in handling the issue of the ex-soldiers' demonstration.

A rumor has it that one Politburo Standing Committee member, believed to be Li, met with representatives of the retired soldiers. The retired soldiers apparently spread the rumor over the internet.

Falun Gong movement

In China, many fresh university graduates are joining the military now that an economic slowdown has dried up private-sector hiring. The trend is particularly noticeable in the country's three northeastern provinces, which are in dire economic straits.

Xi's regime apparently wants to ensure social stability by securing jobs for university graduates. It apparently also wants to secure the kind of competent personnel needed for a modern military.

When he hosted a massive military parade in Beijing in September 2015, Xi unveiled plans to trim China's bloated military by 300,000 troops.

But if Xi is to achieve his goal while also signing up fresh grads, he will have no choice but to boot out more than 300,000 middle-age or older soldiers.

He will have to tread gingerly if he does not want to trigger another demonstration.

Meanwhile, the former soldiers' act of civil disobedience has served as a fresh reminder of what happened in the Chinese capital on April 25, 1999.

Then, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners from various regions surrounded the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in central Beijing to stage a peaceful protest against Chinese authorities' crackdown on them. They were men and women of all ages.

Shocked by the dramatic demonstration, Jiang Zemin, then China's president and Communist Party head, further stepped up a clampdown on Falun Gong practitioners.

Fast-forwarding to this month, China's official media outlets did not report on the former soldiers' demonstration, an apparent sign that the subject is taboo.

The only exception has been a commentary published in the Global Times. The newspaper is affiliated with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

The commentary says the state does not approve of such group behavior because it "could be exploited by domestic and foreign forces." The paper also reported that the vast majority of retired soldiers are "living peacefully."

The upcoming sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party is widely seen as a prelude to what will be a tug of war over naming a new leadership team at the party's next national congress, about a year from now.

This month's unprecedented demonstration could also be exploited for future political gain, further inflaming the bitter power struggle between Xi and his foes.

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