Abandoned by motherland they served

Families struggle to look after PLA veterans as rich China turns its back on military

Minnie Chan in Beijing
22 March 2010

The family of one retired People’s Liberation Army soldier could no longer bear his huge medical debt – and abandoned him.

The widow of another soldier, who died nearly five years ago after a liver transplant, is staggering under the debts and family obligations he left behind.

Unlike many countries that have comprehensive programmes to take care of al the men and women who served in their militaries, China has a system that, since 2001, has addressed the needs of its highest retired officers, but no one below the rank of colonel.

Lower-ranking retirees are upset. Now the country is richer and stronger, they told the National People’s Congress, which ended last weekend, all those who served and are serving the motherland deserve to share the fruits of economic reform.

“We have no complaints or regrets about joining the army to contribute all our best years to our nation, but we never expected to become big burdens to our families after being discharged,” Wang Baoyin, 57, a former PLA colonel who served as a senior radiology engineer at a nuclear test site in Xinjiang for 20 years, said. “I really want to work, but my liver and other organs all have problems.”

Wang, a graduate of Shanxi University’s physics department, joined the PLA in 1978 and won eight science awards for nuclear research. He retired before the 2001 system was introduced.

“As one of the key commanders, I took part in 15 nuclear tests during my two decades in the army,” Wang, a native of Pinglu county, Shanxi, said. “I didn’t hesitate to take any risks, even though my knowledge of physics told me nuclear tests could be lethal, because I decided to make my contribution to the development of our motherland’s defence.”

In 1998, Wang’s vision and liver began to fail. He requested a discharge. The army gave him about 150,000 yuan of decommission pay, and he returned to his village.

A few weeks later, Wang was diagnosed with liver cancer by the PLA’s Lanzhou General Hospital, but he had no medical insurance.

His family spent all of his decommission pay and went into another 300,000 yuan of debt to pay for his medical spending. They saved his life, but the loan broke up his family.

“I was a qualified serviceman, but I couldn’t fulfil my obligations as a son, husband or father,” he said. “I had planned to fulfil all the responsibilities to take care of my family after leaving the army, but I never expected to become a half-blind and chronically ill man after returning home.”

Wang felt guilty and forced his wife and child to leave to escape the debt and his continuing medical expenses. He has relied on his friends and 81-year-old mother, who have had to scavenge at rubbish dumps to support him.

“My father passed away, now my mother is getting old day after day. I don’t know how long they can support me,” Wang said. “I’m ashamed.”

Tan Yigui, a lieutenant colonel who served in Tibet for 24 years, may be even less fortunate.

Tan left home in Cangxi county, Sichuan, to join the army when he was only 20 in 1976. He trained as a doctor in the army and was sent to southern Tibet, where more than half of the residents and 30 per cent of the soldiers have liver problems. At 4,370 metres above sea level, the air is thin. Water and food are not fresh, and medical care is almost zero.

In 1989, Tan was diagnosed with hepatitis B, but he said he didn’t request treatment because his patients needed him. He asked his family to send him Chinese herbs, according to his wife, Luo Xiaoqin.

In January 1998, Tan was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver by Sichuan University’s West China Medical Centre. But he neither told his family nor requested help from the army. A year and a half later, he was discharged and received 360,000 yuan of decommission pay.

“My husband left the army because he found his disease had deteriorated, and he couldn’t work anymore,” Luo said. “He wanted to use his retirement money to pay off a 58,000 yuan debt from his parents’ medical fees.” But Tan didn’t realise no one would pay his medical bills.

Luo spent 700,000 yuan to cure her husband, but Tan died on July 27, 2005, after a liver transplant, leaving behind more than 450,000 yuan of debt, a 21-year-old daughter who was studying at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and two elderly parents.

“My husband’s disease was caused by his long stay on the Tibet Plateau, where he never ate fresh food or drank clean water during his 24 years there,” Luo said. “But our country never took care of his poor health or that of his military colleagues after their retirement.”

The Central Military Commission issued a document in 2001 allowing PLA officers ranked colonel or higher to enjoy housing, medical insurance and a pension after their discharge. But it did not cover officers of the same rank who retired before 2001 or anyone below the rank of colonel.

Nearly five years later, Luo, laid off from her full-time job, is overwhelmed by heavy debt. Their daughter graduated from the conservatory in 2007 but is jobless. “Our family lives from hand to mouth, as I earn only 800 yuan (HK$909) to 900 yuan every month,” she said.

“But I am continuing to fight for benefits and seek justice for my husband and his military companions, because that was his last wish.” Other PLA officers who were left out of the 2001 benefits document are angry. They even hired representatives to carry petitions to Beijing.

Xun Xinjin and Fang Xiangli are two of the petitioners representing 5,000 retired PLA officers in Shandong. They complained to the army’s General Political Department in Beijing during the NPC session, but were sent back on Wednesday.

“We have petitioned to Beijing for nearly 10 years, but the authorities all turn a deaf ear,” said Xun, a lieutenant. Zhou Chengxing, 47, a representative in Sichuan, said up to 40 per cent of his comrades had been divorced due to poor health and poverty.

“We sacrificed our youth and health to support our country during the first two most difficult decades after the opening-up,” he said. “How come we’re forgotten now our country has become rich and strong?”

A Shanghai-based retired senior colonel, who requested anonymity, blames the PLA’s decommissioning system of being incomplete and riddled with corruption.

“All soldiers and officers endured a harsh time from the late 1970s to the early 90s because our country shifted all its resources to economic development,” he said. “The military budget was reduced, and more than 1 million soldiers were cut.

“The central leadership’s poor handling of the retired officers simply reminds serving soldiers to take advantage and grab benefits, legally or illegally, before they are discharged.”

The disgruntled retired soldiers do have a well-placed advocate, however. Major General Luo Yuan, a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said the central government should care for servicemen and their dependents.

“I served at the Yunnan border in the late 70s, where companions were buried after sacrificing their lives for our country’s security,” he said. “But our country doesn’t take care of its ‘family’ properly.”

Luo filed a proposal to the National People’s Congress to urge the top legislative body to make a law to protect all incumbent and retired PLA soldier’s benefit, including their spouses, children and parents.

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