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The Plight of China’s Petitioners (Page 3 of 3)

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

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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.

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