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China’s PLA Faces Budget Cuts, Soldiers Protest

On Tuesday, more than a thousand demobilized soldiers, wearing green fatigues, staged a protest in Beijing across from the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense.

China’s People’s Liberation Army faces increasingly severe budget constraints, and there has already been grumbling not only from former soldiers but also from currently serving senior officers.

The demonstrators arrived early Tuesday morning and stayed late into the evening. In the interim, they sang patriotic songs, waved national flags, and demanded relief. “They protested because they don’t have a job now after serving a long period of time in the army, some for a dozen years,” said Liu Feiyue, editor of the civil rights Minsheng Guancha website, to the Associated Press. “They are asking for employment.”

A 55-year-old protester from Shanxi province complained to the Wall Street Journal this way: “We’ve gotten nothing since retiring from service: no pensions, no social security.”

The Chinese central government has various programs that provide benefits to soldiers who have left the service of the world’s largest military, but often officials in cash-strapped locations divert these funds and use them for other purposes. Moreover, some local cadres pocket benefits for themselves.

The Central Military Commission, the Communist Party body that runs the armed forces, has promised the demonstrators a response by January 1 to their many grievances.

The PLA, as the combined army, navy, and air force is called, has gone through successive downsizings in recent decades, and the next one, slated to be completed by the end of next year, is expected to trim another 300,000—13 percent—from the ranks of the military.

And more trouble is likely on the horizon. The PLA’s announced budget increase for this year—7.6%—was much lower than had been expected. This figure, far less than last year’s announced 10.1% increase, is the first single-digit rise since 2010.

Even senior officers openly expressed discontent over the relatively paltry rise. Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang, for instance, was quoted as saying the PLA needed a 20 percent budget increase.

The announced budget figures are surely inaccurate, but the reported percentage change is thought to represent spending trends.

Once, PLA spending posed no noticeable strain on central government finances. In recent years, however, military budget increases have far outpaced economic growth.  Although generals and admirals have become more influential in Beijing policy circles under current ruler Xi Jinping, bringing the PLA budget back into alignment with the national economy would seem to be inevitable and is likely the leadership’s goal over the long term.

China’s gross domestic product is probably not growing at the 6.7 percent pace that Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics has reported for the first two quarters of this year. Whatever the actual growth rate, the slowing economy will not allow funding levels sufficient to satisfy the flag officers. The PLA is already committed to an acquisition schedule the country cannot afford, and slipping growth in future years will make matters worse.

Moreover, a Chinese debt crisis could force the PLA to scrap whole programs.

The PLA’s increasing budgetary pressures along side Tuesday’s surprise demonstration suggests that downsizing is likely to be accompanied by social disruptions in the years ahead.

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