Hundreds of disgruntled former People's Liberation Army (PLA) personnel are converging on Beijing ahead of a key anniversary to petition the government over pensions and social support.
Around 300 military veterans from the eastern province of Shandong arrived at the political department of the Central Military Commission in Beijing on Thursday ahead of the Aug. 1 anniversary of the PLA's founding in 1927, activists said.
Wu Lao, a 67-year-old former lieutenant colonel who served in the PLA for 32 years, said petitioning former officers had joined ranks with those who took voluntary discharge in return for promises of civil service jobs that never materialized.
Many are disgusted that their years of service have left them in relative poverty, unable to afford to buy a home or pay for medical care.
"They are coming from all over by train, by car and bus," Wu said.
"Everyone chips in a bit of money to buy those train and bus tickets however poor they are, however hard things are."
He said most of his fellow petitioners had seen two or three decades of military service before retiring.
"There are a lot who once held the rank of lieutenant colonel, maybe 40,000 or 50,000 across the whole country," Wu said.
Promises not kept
Xu Ziheng, a PLA veteran from the eastern port city of Qingdao said promises made to retiring officers regarding pensions, medical care, and career assistance had largely not been kept.
"A lot of retired PLA soldiers and those who are disabled have seen a lot of different policies just fail to be implemented," Xu said.
He said a group of petitioners had been invited inside to speak to officials.
"I'm guessing it'll be the same old story; a bus will come and take us all to Majialou [detention center], and then officials from all over will come and collect us," Xu said.
He added: "We have already made this complaint many times ... but the issue hasn't been addressed."
Xu said he and many others had been passed from department to department, with officials in Beijing and in his hometown paying scant attention to their complaints.
Meanwhile, Henan PLA veteran Zhang Yong said he had been part of a crowd of similar petitioners who, complaining they haven't received promised pensions and social welfare payments since leaving the PLA, were intercepted before they reached Beijing.
"In our group, there were people from Shandong and Fujian, and about 400-500 people from maybe six or seven provinces," Zhang said.
"[My location] showed up as soon as I logged on to my QQ [chat] account, and they immediately alerted the authorities here in Henan," he said.
"I was in Tongzhou at the time and they paid a visit to my old comrades, asking if I was in town ... and I was spotted by our local complaints office officials."
"The police, political and legal affairs committee officials, and stability maintenance people all came rushing over here; they all knew about it," Zhang said.
Forced to return
On Tuesday, a group of around 1,600 veterans from around the country was forced to return to their hometowns from Beijing after petitioning the CMC, sources said at the time.
Large numbers of PLA veterans say they are now suffering extreme economic hardship in spite of their service to the nation, giving rise to their slogan, "No money for the doctor, nowhere to turn for help," activists say.
Since 2008, the government has stripped away the status of PLA veterans and former military cadres, leaving thousands with no income at all.
Retired military personnel have been cited by officials and activists as a highly sensitive sector of the population, who might swing a tide of public opinion in their favor and against the ruling Chinese Communist Party because of their proven loyalty to Party and country.
The sensitivity around military retirees means that many are fearful of politicizing their cause through contact with foreign media.
Zhang said the waves of petitioners would likely continue ahead of Aug. 1, and again ahead of the Oct. 1 National Day marking the founding of the People's Republic of China.
"They will just keep coming," he said. "They just keep heading [for Beijing] from all over the country."
He said most petitioner groups are often shadowed by officials from their hometowns, who escort them home after detaining them in unofficial "black jail" detention centers like Majialou on the outskirts of Beijing.
The veterans have begun to divide themselves into smaller groups, to try to slip under the official radar, he added.
"The ones from Zhejiang and Jiangsu have already arrived," Zhang added. "They are intercepting them and escorting them back everywhere."
"A whole bunch of them from Nanchong in Sichuan just got intercepted."
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Fang Yuan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.