Road to Petition

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-4-29 22:18:05

By Li Hongwei

Undeterred by threats, beatings and detention, defiant doctor joins the long line of petitioners aiming to beat the odds

Yang Xianfen from the city of Liupanshui in Guizhou Province displays train tickets and receipts from nine years of petitioning in Beijing. Finally in 2007 her father Yang Zongfa (15-year sentence), mother Li Mingying (10-year sentence) and husband Xie Hua (five-year sentence) were cleared of all charges in the murder of her grandfather Zhang Huaxiu.

In the darker shadows of the dilapidated underpasses by Beijing South train station lurk desperate people. They come from all over China, yearning for grievances to be addressed. The road the petitioner walks is not just long and dangerous, but – most likely – futile.

One out of every 500 petitioners, or 0.2 percent, have their problem actually solved, noted Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in his 2004 report The Deficiency of Petition System and its Political Consequences. Each and every petition is a reminder for the government to redouble its efforts at ongoing legal reform.

It’s a chilly March morning as Shan Yajuan, a 40-year-old medical doctor from Heilongjiang Province, crams on a bendy bus to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the country’s central petition office. She gets off a stop ahead of her destination and instead walks around the corner from the railway station via secluded alleys.

“I received a couple of strange phone calls this morning,” she says. “I’m afraid they know my whereabouts.”


Shan has every reason to be discreet. On a previous trip seeking justice against her allegedly corrupt bosses at Jixi Mining Group in the city of Jixi in Heilongjiang Province, she was abducted by thugs and taken to a “black jail”, an unlawful prison in the capital city’s Fangshan district, where she and seven other petitioners were confined to a room of less than 10 square meters and beaten with electric batons. Petitioners’ hometowns reportedly pay the rental on these rooms. Allegedly slapped in the face and kicked in the ribs, Shan says she was lucky to incur only heavy bruising. She says she knew what to expect after similar beatings from similar people back home.

Shan pauses to survey Yongdingmen Bridge, an overpass near the bureau where gangs of thugs with dubious official connections lie in wait. Their mission is simple: to intercept their quarry before any complaint can be filed. Shan pads cautiously across as they eyeball her intensely.

“I feel safer now,” Shan says. “It used to be a cat-and-mouse game.”

Until recently, she says, the hooligans strutted up and down the alley and abducted petitioners from right outside the bureau gates.

“They used to abduct petitioners and beat them in the alley leading to the bureau.”

The situation has improved thanks to the National People’s Congress (NPC), she says. During this current NPC session (March 5-13), police seem to have shepherded most of the goons away from the main gate: at least as far as the overpass.


A city of Shenyang public security bureau staff member handles petition issues. Photos: CFP

Guards at the gates

The guards at the bureau gates act like old acquaintances. “How are you doing these days?” one asks Shan as she passes through the security check.

An unpleasant odor permeates the high-ceilinged hall that echoes with shouting, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Ghostly voices murmur complaints as diverse as illegal land seizures and unfair counter-revolutionary labels dating back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The bureau has processed 10 million petitions in the last five years. Here, supervised by burly security guards, petitioners petition expressionless clerks behind perspex windows.

After picking up her forms and reaching the head of a “short” 200-person line, Shan presents her 45-page complaint form to a bespectacled male clerk. In the next-door booth, a Henan man explains how his house became an accident blackspot after his hometown built a new road (See sidebar A petitioner’s tale of troubles, car crashes).

Attitude seems important: the clerks have short tempers. Most petitioners are denied within minutes and if a petitioner refuses to leave, the clerk calls the guards over.

After a few minutes’ intense questioning, Shan succeeds. She becomes one of the chosen few to be granted a 20-minute audience on the second floor. As Shan ascends, another petitioner is refused. A woman in her 50s explodes into tears and starts wailing “Why did you refuse to let me in?” Security guards arrive within seconds and drag the woman away by her arms, legs trailing weakly behind her prostrate body.

Not everyone is sent home. According to 2007 research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more than 10,000 petitioners have set up temporary residence in the capital city, doing the rounds of petition offices that among others include the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and even the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China.

After her talk in one of the 37 upstairs meeting rooms, Shan is handed a written notice and told to file her complaint at the Office of Letters and Calls of the Beijing Committee of Communist Party of China and Beijing Municipal People’s Government. Shan is beaming. She has lost count of how many visits she has made to the State bureau: it’s the first written response she has received since starting out in March 2006.

Shan’s first petition targeted alleged corruption at the mining company in Jixi. According to Shan, her leaders swindled the central government out of a more-than-30 million yuan compensation fee by falsely reporting 3,000 employees had been laid off. Three leaders then occupied luxury apartments to which they were not entitled, Shan also alleged. Global Times reporters made 12 phone calls to four departments of Jixi Mining Group but none were answered.


Final chapter

Shan’s letter from the State bureau indicated she could go to the Beijing office to file a petition. Shan then went, but was turned down.

Shan’s troubles did not end there. She was stopped by police on the street after visiting the bureau on March 13. Having identified her, police dispatched Shan off to the suburb of Majialou on the South Fourth Ring Road where intercepted petitioners are temporarily detained before being sent back home.

The Beijing-based liaison office for the State-owned enterprise Shan had criticized sent a staff member over to Majialou to pick her up. But instead of detaining her or sending her home, the staff member opted – unusually – to follow Shan instead.

“He tailed me, and I knew it,” said Shan. “So I didn’t go back to my temporary Beijing accommodation.”

Shan is now filing lawsuits with one bureau for failure to act and with another for covering up her treatment.

The phone number listed on the State Bureau of Letters and Calls website is an automated message, which informs callers where to send letters and where to visit. After two days and 18 phone calls to the constantly-busy Beijing municipal office of letters and calls, a member of staff, who refused to be named, answered the phone.

“The directors don’t have time for an interview for now,” she said.

Three new advice documents were released earlier this month by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council: they stipulate that all township officials must receive petitioners at any time and all county Party leaders must set aside one day a month to receive petitioners. Central and provincial government leaders are also encouraged to receive petitioners.

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