BEIJING (AP) — China's defense ministry said Thursday it expects economic growth and a strengthened social security system to solve problems faced by former soldiers, following reports of new street protests by disgruntled veterans who say they've been denied their promised retirement benefits.
The remarks came after cellphone video circulated online showing a large group of veterans in military fatigues walking through central Beijing on Wednesday and gathering outside the offices of the ruling Communist Party's corruption watchdog body.
Ministry spokesman Col. Ren Guoqiang said the government and the party are concerned about veterans' issues, but didn't say whether anyone had met with the protesters or whether any new policies were planned to assist them.
"The difficulties that veterans currently encounter will be gradually overcome," Ren said at a monthly news briefing.
It wasn't clear what the veterans' demands were, although many have long complained about pensions, access to health care and assistance in finding new jobs. Banners identified at least some in the group Wednesday as unemployed veterans from the eastern port city of Yancheng. Reports of additional protests in Beijing on Thursday could not immediately be confirmed.
Such protests have broken out around the country for decades, amplifying concerns over labor unrest and threatening to undermine rank-and-file support for Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's campaign to modernize the military by attracting better qualified and more highly motivated soldiers.
The government censors information about the protests and veterans are highly reluctant to discuss their plight with foreign media for fear of being accused of disloyalty.
Despite operating the world's largest standing army, with 2.3 million personnel, China doesn't have a central government body such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to handle welfare for former soldiers. Instead, cash-strapped local government offices are responsible for their welfare, and the type of benefits offered vary widely across the country.
Ren said Xi's plan to reduce the size of the armed forces by 300,000 by the end of the year was proceeding as planned. The downsizing is expected to shift the emphasis away from ground forces and toward the navy, air force and rocket force.