China to improve veterans' care after protests with new ministry

BEIJING (Reuters) - 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 on Saturday.

The ministry will centralize the handling of resettlements and finding new jobs for former soldiers and ensuring those in the military are treated as “revered members of society”, State Councillor Wang Yong told parliament, unveiling details of the reshuffle.

It will also be responsible for supporting veterans’ family members and for taking care of graves and memorials, he added.

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, fuelling 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 Defence Ministry headquarters in Beijing in 2016, and reports of protests in parts of the country surface every few months.

Demobilized soldiers who protested 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.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Richard Pullin and Clarence Fernandez