Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) get ready for the military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the army at Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, July 30, 2017. Photo: China Daily via REUTERS
Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army. Photo: Asia Times files

It is very difficult to get accurate reports from inside societies that are aren’t free. The US relied on walk-ins throughout the Cold War to fortify its understanding of the Soviet Union. Today, the US relies on its alliance partners to help it understand its adversaries. Human intelligence or placed agents are virtually non-existent in Marxist or totalitarian regimes.

So it is with the West’s understanding of weak social pillars in Chinese society. Growing social unrest is known but not quantified because of the strength of the domestic intelligence services. But what is known is highly accurate. The single most vulnerable plank in the Chinese regime was always its interior.  If you want your phone calls returned from President Xi Jinping, introduce or exploit egalitarian ideals in a multiethnic empire ruled by a single ethnic group.

What do the ruling Han fear?  They fear justified social unrest, and the People’s Liberation Army has plenty.

China has over 57 million living veterans. They are organizing themselves to protest against broken promises after demobilization.  By far the most fervent are those decommissioned from the 1970s to the 1990s. They’re witnessing the rise of entire social classes, many allied to the military or state-owned enterprises, but they’re being left out.

China has over 57 million living veterans. They are organizing themselves to protest against broken promises after demobilization

The source of their discontent is simple: the varying differences in compensation dependent on when and where they were demobilized.  These varying disparities have become glaring over the last two decades. While benefits for US veterans are outlined in compliance with a single federal law, Chinese veterans are decommissioned or demobilized into a tangle of provincial edicts. Because a disproportionate share of the PLA comes from poor regions, these cadets and officers are relinquished into a system of socio-political patronage that inculcates disparity. The rot at the center of the PLA is well known.

Adding to this discontent is the long-held political tradition within China of the permanent governing disparity between Beijing and local governments. This dysfunctional federalism actually exacerbates problems for those decommissioned because benefits paid out to veterans is local. Having entire swathes of veterans dependent on cash-strapped administrations institutionalizes vagaries that promote discord.

China’s system of household registration promotes obstacles to social mobility that previous veterans never experienced. The most organized veterans are those decommissioned into state-owned enterprises reformed into market-based subsidiaries. Retrenched veterans dependent upon archaic patronage find themselves abandoned by the very nation-state promising stability.

The rank injustice suffered by Chinese veterans is damaging reform efforts in that it openly hurts both recruitment and modernization efforts.

The West needs to anticipate that any open conflict with China will see Beijing turn inward, addressing an indigenous fifth column of former patriots who are suffering as a result of having served China.

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William Holland

William Holland is North American recruiter for Wikistrat global consultancy monitoring Pakistan's nuclear program.

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