Petitioning takes many forms in China – sometimes there are harmless forms of protest, such as the petitioner who pulled down his pants at the Bo Xilai trial last week. Other times, petitioning can be tragic; earlier this month, twenty-one activists attempted mass suicide at the Beijing West Railway station after their petitions went ignored.
Few incidents garnered more support or pity recently than the case of wheelchair-bound Ji Zhongxing, who attempted to blow himself up in the Beijing airport in late July. Support poured in from all around the internet. At the cost of his hand and possibly his freedom, his case was reopened, a dangerous precedent for the thousands in Beijing who brave security thugs and the elements just to be heard. China is no stranger to violent attacks by angry citizens, and recent events—including the government’s march on corruption—have put the nation’s most vulnerable people in the spotlight.
Wang Lanying (an alias) grabbed attention by thrusting her ID card into the hands of a Diplomat photographer, saying, "Take it! I don't need it! Take it!" Black hair with gray streaks, sun-worn skin, and sincerely afraid, 53-year-old Wang agreed to meet for an interview, after, of course, making sure that it wasn't a trick and that she wouldn't be arrested upon arrival.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In 2010, Wang lost a court case to a wealthy man in her village in Hebei Province, who then proceeded to burn down her trees and build on her land. The alleged culprit still has control of the land. In March, she came to Beijing as a petitioner.
In the last three years she has been trucked back to her hometown, beaten, and unlawfully imprisoned for over a week on several occasions. Her son's wife left him due to the constant harassment and intimidation in their town. While Wang was detained once, a representative from the court allegedly asked her to sign an agreement to effectively squash her case, telling her that, if she didn't sign, she'd be breaking the law. She said, "You detain me illegally and you say I am illegal? Why don't you just give me a bullet and let me die?"
Of course, the media is not a courtroom, and though Wang boasts an impressive list of witnesses and evidence, they mean nothing outside the court of public opinion. But when Wang came to the city to stand on the streets with papers in her hand—begging for attention from any high level official or media outlet—she joined the lowly class of the petitioner. Since the only court that matters for petitioners is the court of public opinion, the point of her petitioning is to gain attention.
Petitioning higher authorities in such a manner may be unique to China, but the lack of an independent judiciary or free press makes the situation extremely difficult and a thorny issue for the public. Technically, these sorts of issues are meant to be handled by the State Bureau of Letters and Visits.
The Way of Xinfang
The Bureau of Letters and Visits, colloquially known as Xinfang, is a noble idea—it provides people, organizations, and entities a hotline to the local, provincial and national governments. The concept has existed since antiquity, when people would bang drums or throw themselves in front of sedan chairs to get the attention of the authorities.
Today, the Bureau, apart from being one of the busiest offices in China, is viewed with pride by many petitioning and sleeping on the streets of Beijing. However, local branches are famously corrupt and come with "interceptors," who have the dubious job of finding both petitions and petitioners to make sure they don't see the light of day.