Protests happen in China, but rarely in the capital of Beijing, and more rarely still outside a major government ministry.
Yet that’s what happened this week when an estimated 1,500 army veterans—one protestor said as many as 20,000—converged outside the Defense Ministry in Beijing. They came from all over China, bringing their camouflage fatigues and changing on the spot to avoid being detained earlier. Some complained about unfair retirement compensation. Others failed to get a promised job at a state-owned company when they were decommissioned. And others said their monthly pension of less than $50 paled in comparison to modern ones that pay out $500 a month, according to Chinese reports on social media.
The government took actions to prevent such army protests from becoming more widespread. By Wednesday morning, protestors were moved on buses or police wagons. A report on WeChat, the social network, said Premier Li Keqiang met with the veterans’ representatives on Thursday to listen to the veterans’ comments and requests. An attendee named Wu Lijuan said Li met with the group for two hours. His visit came after a meeting between the protestors and a member of the ruling Politburo.
Fortune couldn’t verify the reports, and Chinese media were banned from covering the protests. But the leaders’ reported attendance underlines the importance China’s government places on mollifying groups that will be central to the country’s coming restructuring of its army and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
The Communist Party is sensitive to big groups with grievances, especially allies such as the People’s Liberation Army, because they have the potential to throw off future reforms. The government plans to reduce the size of the 2.3 million member PLA by 300,000, and, to reduce steel and coal oversupply, five to six million workers may be laid off over the next few years.
Both moves are important to China’s economy. The SOEs, once considered workers’ big brother because of the lifetime of support they promised employees, are holding more than $12 trillion in debt, making them responsible for a large portion of China’s 260% total debt to GDP ratio. They badly need a shake up.
Future protests will be important to track. If army veterans can win concessions from Beijing, workers in the steel and coal industries facing job cuts will likely take note.