They’d not drunk together since they were in the same army unit, fighting skirmishes with Vietnamese forces in the aftermath of a 1979 border war.
Now in their 50s, they’d come here shortly before an annual parliament meeting in March to fight a different kind of battle – to demand the welfare support that they say was promised to them, and millions of other veterans, on leaving the armed forces years ago.
The four veterans, all from the southern province of Hunan, are an example of the problem facing President Xi Jinping as he prepares to lay off 300,000 out of 2.3 million troops in the biggest restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, since the 1950s.
China already has at least six million PLA veterans on state welfare, thousands of whom have staged well-organized protests in recent years over what they see as insufficient government support. Traditionally the government has offered subsidies to former soldiers and reserved slots for them at state-run companies, though many veterans say officials don’t follow through or that the perks aren’t enough to make ends meet.
Now, with an economic slowdown threatening to cause millions of state sector layoffs, prominent military figures have warned that veterans’ protests could escalate if the government can’t provide jobs or sufficient welfare support for the 300,000 being laid off.
One of the largest veterans’ protests was in June last year when several thousand, mostly veterans of China’s war with Vietnam, wearing uniforms and medals, protested outside offices of the Central Military Commission, which commands the armed forces and is headed by Mr. Xi.
A month earlier, there was another big veterans’ protest outside a Beijing courthouse. Smaller demonstrations occur frequently in other cities, according to experts who monitor them.
Many other veterans have tried to sue the government or lodge formal petitions, as the four in the restaurant did. Before lunch, they said, they’d submitted one at a nearby building that houses the petitions office of the Central Military Commission.
Officials there took the petition and scanned their identity cards, but gave them neither a receipt nor a reply, they said. “They just told us to go back where we came from,” said one of the four, a 54-year-old former worker in a coal-washing plant. “We got the feeling it was useless to go there.”