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.
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.
As Wang claims, "Police ask us to get in vans. They explain politely they will take us to a hotel, but they take us back home to get beat up." She claims to have stood outside her local branch for seven days straight once, and still no one would speak to her.
The central government, which often emerges as the hero in petitioners' tales of woe, gets a large amount of "she shu" petitions, which mean, as in Wang’s case, that the complaints are related to previous litigation. When the local courts are controlled by the local party, few cases that come up against influential figures have a chance in the courtroom.
Since petitions can cover a range of issues— from infections from blood transfusions to land seizures—reliable statistics on petitioning are hard to come by. But a 2004 survey from Yu Jianrong—involving 20,000 letters and interviews—suggest that only 2 percent of petitions are successful. However, it is important to remember that success is not the only goal. Of the respondents in the Yu Jianrong survey, 90.5 percent claimed that they simply wanted to “make the central government aware of the situation,” while 88.5 percent said they wanted to "put pressure on the local governments."
The new government has placed corruption at the top of its agenda, and Xinfang could be a way to gauge its success. The majority of petitioners claim their grievances come from corruption and abuse of power. Strong words were issued earlier this month from the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CCP’s Central Committee, which Xinhua paraphrased as saying that local "judges, procurators and police officers will bear 'life-long responsibility' for their roles in wrongful judgments."
On the other hand, changes to the petitioning system are often viewed with skepticism. Last month, for instance, petitioning entered the 21st century by going online. While this may seem like an excellent way to curtail incidents of petitioners having their paperwork stolen or intercepted by local authorities, human rights activists also point out that petitioners must enter personal information that could make them or their families subject to retaliation. Moreover, the petitioning site crashed on the first day under the sheer weight of petitions, making it seem like the project is just a half-hearted effort to placate disgruntled citizens.
Although it may be farfetched to think that the central government would give out petitioners’ personal information to local government officials, the idea of this happening at the local level is certainly not.
With all this working against the Xinfang system, there's little surprise that petitioners like Wang don't bother with it at all. Instead, Wang spends her days, like dozens of other petitioners, at the United Nations’ (UN) building in Beijing.
"They Just Can't See Us"
"If I get detained outside the UN, the local courts will finally meet with me," says Wang. When it comes to petitioning, media attention is the Holy Grail. Consequentially, Wang and others often petition in front of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) building, hoping for a shot at the limelight. Within seconds, petitioners mob reporters.
In less than five minutes at the UNDP on August 12th, The Diplomat received over 60 pages of photocopied petition documents including police reports, medical bills, and handwritten pleas.
However, it's not always as easy for the Chinese media to report on petitioners, regardless of how much the central government wants the system sorted out.
Wen Tao, a Chinese journalist who spent months in detainment for his association and friendship with controversial artist Ai Weiwei, has had run-ins with petitioners in the past. Four years ago, while working for the Global Times, Wen Tao was pushed around in front of the Bureau of Letters and Visits in Beijing.
"It's a very normal situation in China when you cover stories like that, petitioners," Wen Tao says. "This is a sensitive field; they (Chinese journalists) can only report sometimes."
Accusations of corruption exist at the heart of many petitions. Tao states, "Some of their stories are related to religion—such as the Falun Gong or Jidu jiao (Christianity) underground…Sometimes there's a political background."
Besides factors involving the Party's mass line and corrupt local governments, there's also a great deal of money wrapped up in individual petitions.
For example, petitioner Lei Shuping, 48, from Inner Mongolia was hit by an—allegedly—drunk driver with government contacts who, according to the police report, did not have proper plates for his car, leaving her disabled and unable to work. She actually won compensation to the tune of 12,000 RMB, which covered her immediate medical bills. Is she petitioning for justice and rule of law? Perhaps, but, she is definitely petitioning for 600,000 RMB owed to her in damages and lost wages, making her version of the truth more than just a sob story; it's a life ruined and a fortune owed.
Her only hope is the media: "I hope the media will understand and show sympathy to me. I have my hope in you guys to tell my story."
Even if her local court's decision was completely legitimate, she has a better shot of getting what she wants by sleeping on the freezing Beijing pavement in February as she did earlier this year, trying to get someone to publish her tale, than she does with the local courts and administrative authorities.
Without a free local or national press or an independent judiciary, the foreign press—which in many cases lacks access—is the last resort in a long line of last resorts. Faith, for most petitioners, still lies with the central government. Many even prefer it to legislative channels. When asked if she thought there was anything the central government could be doing better, Wang Lanying said, "They just can't see us."
A Future for Xinfang
Even though it's highly censored, China's online world offers another way. Attention on Weibo, China's replacement for the banned Twitter, is important as always, but, earlier this year, China's online masses looked to an odd place for help: the White House.
The White House's "We the People" section of the website allows users to place petitions; 100,000 signatures gets a response. For a time in early May, China commandeered the site for their political and petitioner woes. Some were for major political issues in China, and some were in jest, like the petition to ban "jianbing", the egg-based Beijing breakfast food. The number of Chinese petitioners were estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Other petitions were serious, such as petitions to remonstrate China over petrochemical plants Yunnan Province and petitions to the repatriation of a suspect in an unsolved poisoning case. Needless to say, the Chinese authorities were not happy. A few of the petitioners who wrote on the White House petition site were later tracked down by authorities.
A blogger from Chengdu who posted a petition on the White House website later got a call from the police who tracked her down via her Weibo registration information. Unaware that users can not delete petitions from the site, she panicked and wrote on her Weibo: "Help needed! Will someone please tell me how to delete a White House petition? The police have talked to me, and I am scared."
The Chinese government and press don't often look kindly on foreign meddling, but there wasn't much they could do in this case. They had to sit back and watch the US, their all-purpose villain and whipping boy, get credit for listening to petitions.
Of course, these petitions bear only a passing resemblance to the personal and mass petitions seen in the capital and in local and provincial governments around the country. However, it is a chilling reminder that the days of petitioners being ignored by the world are over.
For now, broken and embarrassing as it may be for the authorities, the petitioning system shows few signs of major change, and thanks to the Internet, the world can watch. On the ground in Beijing, though, things are as they have been. Petitioners fight for their rights and do so in the name of their country, bravely and staunchly patriotic.
Huang Lianliang has been petitioning "for decades" in the capital. From nearby Hebei Province, he makes trips to Beijing to petition at the UN building and other high-profile areas to redress a land dispute, as well as the illegal searches and wrongful imprisonments that followed. At 70 years old, Huang had to have his son, Huang Jianhe, answer for him due to his poor hearing. The elderly man travels to Beijing several times a week from the Northern province, working odd jobs while he's in the city, including construction, to try to earn enough money to go back home to his family.
Huang lost his land once to policy shifts, but it was returned to him for five years before the government seized it again; now, he's back on the street. Dedicated petitioners like Huang are not going anywhere anytime soon, and, though China's central authorities are somewhat embarrassed by their forgotten rural courts and the dirty petitioners in the streets of the capital, not dealing with it is becoming more difficult in an increasingly transparent world.
Realistically, petitioners aren’t expected to seek violent means like Ji Zhongxing; their love and respect for the central government is unmatched, and most wouldn’t dream of bringing shame on their country. For now, there's nothing for petitioners to do but hit the streets and hope that the perfect storm of press, government, and luck blows through Beijing's alleyways and railway stations so they can finally go home.
Tyler Roney is a Beijing-based columnist for The Diplomat and an editor of the magazine, The World of Chinese. Additional research by Liu Jue and Phoebe Storm.