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."Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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."