Veteran administration took on strategic importance under the plan to trim the armed forces from 4 million soldiers to 3 million from 1985. A new conscription law beginning in 1984 gave legal effect to recruitment practices adopted since 1978. The PLA has ceased to be an army of volunteers. Instead conscripts make up its main strength; these are supplemented by a professional core of servicemen who volunteered to prolong their service. Much as the draft gave the state greater certainty over enlistment, the morale of combatants could be adversely affected if their families could not get adequate compensation. For this reason, reforms in preferential aid assumed added political meaning.
Serving soldiers, retired and demobilized personnel, disabled veterans, martyrs and their dependants make up a sizeable proportion of the population. In 1980, this group comprised 49 million persons; in 1995 they still numbered 39 million (China Statistical Yearbook 1996:222-3).
Before the reform, state relief to military personnel consisted of one-off death grants, regular relief for martyr families and pensions to disabled soldiers. The proportion that obtained state aid was small, about 5 per cent. Aid to families of serving soldiers came from the collective-primarily from work points, cash and material relief allocated by production teams. After the reform, this imbalance was addressed. More soldiers' dependants became eligible for state relief. So state spending on soldiers and veterans rose accordingly. In 1985, preferential aid cost the state 353 million yuan. This rose to 1,411 million yuan in 1990 and to 2,410 million yuan in 1995 (China Statistical Yearbook 1996:725). Meanwhile it was not known how many received preferential aid from the masses. In monetary terms, however, the communal burden has markedly increased (at nearly eight times over the period) (see Table 5.1). The annual increases were especially steep in the early 1980s. The rate of increase flattened subsequently but has grown appreciably since the early 1990s.