China creates new ministry to improve veterans’ care after protests

Reuters, AP

China will set up a Ministry of Veterans Affairs as part of a government reshuffle presented to parliament on Tuesday, aiming to better look after former soldiers whose complaints about poor treatment have flared into scattered protests in recent years.

The new agency will be formed as part of a broad shake-up of government departments that the country’s largely rubber-stamp parliament will formally approve Saturday.

The ministry will centralize the handling of resettlements and finding new jobs for former soldiers, according to a brief explanation of its role that was included in a longer document about the reshuffle.

The tasks were previously handled by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Central Military Commission, which President Xi Jinping heads and which has overall command of the armed forces.

In February of last year, Chinese military veterans staged two days of demonstrations in central Beijing, demanding unpaid retirement benefits in a new wave of protests highlighting the difficulty in managing demobilized troops.

Xi announced in 2015 the People’s Liberation Army would cut troop levels by 300,000, aiming to make the bulk of the reductions by the end of 2017.

Premier Li Keqiang said last week China had basically completed those efforts.

China hopes the measure will leave it more money to spend on high-tech weapons for its navy and air force, and result in a leaner and more strategic military.

The government this month unveiled its largest defense spending increase in three years, setting an 8.1 percent growth target this year, fueling an ambitious military modernization program and making its neighbors nervous.

Grievances over military pensions and perceived poor treatment of veterans have been a long-running issue, and have at times led to organized protests.

More than 1,000 veterans also demonstrated outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Beijing in 2016, and reports of protests in parts of the country surface every few months.

Some protests by demobilized soldiers have included some who fought against Vietnam in 1979 — China’s last major foreign military engagement — and complained about problems with their pensions.

China’s Defense Ministry, responding to the protests last year, said the government cared about veterans’ welfare, attached great importance to resolving their difficulties and had done much to better their conditions.

Also Tuesday, Xi’s wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign stood to gain a major boost as the NPC moved to establish a powerful new agency with authority over vast numbers of workers in the public sector.

The NPC began a third and final reading Tuesday of the draft supervision law described by state media as “aiming at a centralized, unified, authoritative and efficient supervisory network under the (Communist) Party’s leadership.”

The law would merge the party’s anti-graft watchdog body with one overseeing the civil service to form a new National Supervision Commission, defined as a political body independent of the Cabinet, courts and prosecutors, raising fears of political abuse.

The body will have the right to detain suspects for up to six months without seeking a judge’s permission. Authorities must inform the suspect’s family and work unit of their detention within 24 hours, except in cases where evidence might be destroyed or the investigation otherwise impeded, according to a text of the draft law.

Other details, such as where suspects will be held, who will be responsible for their welfare and what form of legal representation they will be permitted, have not been announced.

In introducing the supervision law, the vice chairman of the NPC’s Standing Committee, Li Jianguo, described it as an “important measure in consolidating the steps taken by party center to deepen reform of supervisory system.”

The bill will establish supervisory commissions at the national, provincial, city and county levels, overseeing public servants working in the party and government bureaucracy, state-owned enterprises, research institutes and educational, medical, cultural and athletic bodies. In Beijing alone, a pilot program instituted last year quadrupled the numbers under scrutiny to almost 1 million.

The commission also replaces the party’s previous procedure for investigating corruption suspects known as “shuang gui” whose opaque nature led to frequent allegations or torture, forced confessions and other abuses.

“Replacing ‘shuang gui’ with rigorously-regulated detention will help settle a long-lingering legal problem,” Li told the NPC’s almost 3,000 delegates. “This has displayed our resolve and confidence to realize a full law-based governance.”