In southern suburban Beijing lies a mysterious and heavily guarded courtyard that is not open to the public but only to the petitioners corralled there. To them, the place is a household name.
Driving down the South Fourth Ring Road for about 20 minutes toward Fengtai district, the "Jiujingzhuang reception center" will appear. Nearly every day, vehicles carrying petitioners who come to Beijing from across the country drive in and out. It is a temporary holding area for petitioners waiting to be transferred to local authorities but few pictures or details about it exist online. However, recently, a rumor that about 70,000 people were turned out from Jiujingzhuang at midnight on December 4 brought it under the spotlight.
Jiujingzhuang occupies the area of seven football fields, surrounded by a 2.5-meter-high wall and security guards. A Global Times reporter attempted to approach and talk to staff but was turned away by a guard standing at the gate yelling "no interviews." Another man, who seemed to be in charged, jostled this reporter away from the gate and told him to stay away.
Waves of petitioners
Zhang Fengying, 72, a petitioner from Shanxi Province has been to Jiujingzhuang several times with the same meager belongings, a bag of clothes and her son's death penalty verdict. Zhang firmly believes the verdict was unfair since her son was executed for being an accessory to the crime while the main culprit was granted a stay of execution. She decided to head for the capital to seek justice.
Zhang reached the China Central Television (CCTV) Tower in the early morning of December 4. However, she was surrounded by police the moment she arrived. The police then forced her onto a public bus, already half full with other petitioners. Like Zhang, they chose to come to Beijing to air their grievances on the same day.
December 4 is the National Legal Advocacy Day of China, established by the State Council to hold up the Constitution and raise public awareness about the law. It also offers petitioners a chance to bring public attention to their cause. They come from across the country with various goals in mind but their fates are similar once they arrive in Beijing: once they gather, they are caught by police, sent to petition centers and repatriated.
The bus took Zhang to Jiujingzhuang reception center at 10 am. Zhang remembered her shock as she looked out of the window. "I saw countless buses, and each of them was full of petitioners," she told the Global Times. It was not until 2 pm that Zhang finally got in as yet more people arrived.
Liu Guijie, a petitioner from Qingdao, Shandong Province, said she was on the last bus to the center which was crammed by the time she arrived. "I couldn't believe my eyes when I stepped in that room," Liu recalled, "nearly 300 petitioners were stuck in a 100 square meter room. Many of them had to stand because there was nowhere to sit."
Liu came to Beijing for a problem with a real estate case. Although the judgment was in her favor, she never received the 380,000 yuan ($61,000) she was supposed to get. She was sent to Jiujingzhuang more than five times, and ended up locked in the same room with other petitioners from Shandong Province each time.
It seems likely the number of petitioners surpassed Jiujingzhuang's maximum capacity that day as employees told them all to leave at midnight.
Rumors spread on Weibo quickly as to how many petitioners were involved with many quoting an unproven observation allegedly made by Shen Zhihua, a petitioner from Anji county, Zhejiang Province, who claimed more than 70,000 petitioners were released that night.
However, no other petitioners contacted by the Global Times could confirm this number. Lin Wenguang, 42, said he saw around 50 buses arrive at Jiujingzhuang that day. "The actual number may have been large but 70,000 seems impossible," he said.
Though the exact number remains unknown, all petitioners agreed the crowds were suffocating. But despite these revelations, life in Jiujingzhuang was never supposed to be a walk in the park.
Sun Xuemei, 60, said that she always had a rough time in Jiujingzhuang when she came up from Qingdao. "You only have a small plastic bench to sit on. Even getting this bench is lucky as most can only sit on the cold ground in winter."
While Zhang was let go, she does not remember the moment fondly. "Staff from the center came to me at midnight on December 4 and told me to piss off," she recalled, "but where could I go at that time? I had no money, and all the public buses had stopped running. Was I supposed to stay outside in the cold winter night? So I refused."
Other risks are present, as according to a report from Southern Metropolis Daily in May this year, a female petitioner was raped by a guard at the center.
According to the petitioners, they were all brought to Jiujingzhuang by the Beijing police from landmark areas such as Tiananmen Square, the CCTV Tower, and the Sanlitun embassy district.
Zi Xiangdong, spokesman for Beijing's public security bureau, declined to comment for this story. But who truly runs the reception center? The name "Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau" (BCAB) is printed on all the food bags delivered to petitioners.
According to BCAB's financial statement of 2010, it spent 27.1 million yuan on maintenance for the center. However, when the Global Times contacted BCAB, one press officer said most BCAB staff know next to nothing about the center. "Jiujingzhuang center is a confidential issue, the only thing we know is BCAB runs it," said the officer.
A report from the Beijing Land Consolidation and Reserve Center shows the land was transferred to BCAB to build the current facilities in 2010.
When petitioners reach the reception center, liaison officers from their home areas based in Beijing are notified. They are supposed to solve the appeal from petitioners, but more often than not, the petitioners are simply carted off home.
A judge surnamed Li from Qingdao Intermediate People's Court was assigned to Beijing to handle petitioners' appeals. He confirmed he was responsible for sending petitioners home, yet refused to say more about it.
Li offered Liu the chance to go back home, but she declined. "The officer from Qingdao's liaison office promised that my case would be verified back in Qingdao, but that's not a satisfying answer, as I have heard this many times before," Liu said.
Apart from the effortless attempts, petitioners would also have to face the threats from violence and illegal detention. A petitioner from Liaoning Province, surnamed Xu, told the Global Times how she witnessed other petitioners being taken away by thugs.
"They were muscular men, all dressed in black uniforms, which looked like police, but they beat the petitioners and even kicked them when they were down," recalled Xu. "The thugs then threw the injured petitioners in a white van and drove away."
Facing the facts
Differing from Zhang, who was caught and brought to Jiujingzhuang by the police, Liu said she approached police intentionally and told them she wished to be sent there.
"It is the only way for me to see provincial officials," Liu said, "I hope I can put pressure on them by doing this."
According to a Xinhua News Agency report from October, the total number of petitions in China has been decreasing since 2005, though precise figures were not given.
However, Liu told the Global Times that she has been a petitioner for eight years and got nothing in return until recently. "Before the opening of the 18th National Party Congress in November, the liaison office found me and told me if I set aside my petitions during the congress, I would get 50,000 yuan, so I signed a guarantee," said Liu.
Liu is lucky when compared with Zhang, since she got a measure of compensation. Zhang said she was sent back to Taiyuan "countless times," but was never given a reasonable answer.
Jiujingzhuang, run by Beijing municipal government, does have a measure of legitimacy. But there are still many illegal detention centers, or "black jails," which illegally intercept and detain petitioners.
A recent investigative report by Caijing Magazine showed that these centers are becoming increasingly well concealed. Before, the local government mainly contracted the interception job to security companies. But as the crackdown intensified following offenses by several security contractors being exposed last year, local authorities went on high alert and began hiring employees directly and renting shabby and remote buildings for detention purposes.
Recently, 10 people who violently detained petitioners coming to Beijing were brought to the Chaoyang District People's Court. Earlier in June, a group of nine people were charged for running an illegal detention center by Changping District People's Court in Beijing. But nobody in any government position was held responsible in either case.
Pu Zhiqiang, a civil rights lawyer told the Global Times that petitions are a key index in the work performance results of Chinese officials, and that is the reason why violence occurred. "It's a veto, which can render all other efforts meaningless. Petitioners would try to use this to put pressure on officials, while local officials will use every means to stop them, including violence," Pu said, suggesting that they should solve their appeals in their hometown rather than coming to Beijing.
"But their right to use the letter and call system is protected by the constitution, their personal safety should be guaranteed," he added.
Tang Renwu, director of the study and dean of the management school at Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times that Jiujingzhuang also has its positive aspects. "Many petitioners flooded into Beijing on that day to seek justice, but the temperature on that day dropped to below freezing," said Tang, who took December 4's case as example.
"The reception center can act as a shelter for the petitioners, which shows the humane concern of Beijing's law enforcement."