In ancient China, a petitioner would beat a drum before the court to seek redress for an injustice. Now, it seems bringing a foreigner will ensure that your grievances are heard.
When 28-year-old farmer Xu Shuai from Weifang, Shandong Province, brought along his British wife Joanne Margaret Noble, 33, as well as his two children, 2-year-old Diana and 9-month-old Eric, to petition in front of the local government office, the family soon became the focus of attention from other petitioners and passers-by.
"Maybe government officials thought a foreigner petitioning made them lose face, so they invited us in and listened to our grievances," Xu told the Global Times. "Well, we are privileged to be different from other petitioners."
In China, petitioning is an administrative system for hearing complaints and grievances from individuals. In recent years, petitioners who felt that justice has eluded them have often gone to Beijing to appeal to higher authorities.
The petition law also allows foreigners to use this very Chinese way of seeking justice. Wei Jinmu, the petition bureau's deputy director, once said at a press conference that foreigners were better off petitioning by letter, e-mail or fax rather than lining up in front of government buildings like other Chinese petitioners.
Only a handful of foreigners have ever chosen to seek justice in this way. But when they have, the frenzy of media attention has either made things more complicated, or, conversely solved things quickly, as it is generally believed that "foreign affairs are no small matter."
Understanding that his foreign wife might have a positive influence on his dispute, Xu always brings along his family when he petitions. His wife, who only speaks a little Chinese and spends most of her time in the countryside, told the Global Times that she does not really understand what is happening. Her husband did not explain the petition process to her.
Some people have criticized Xu for using his wife. In response, he said, "I know if I don't bring them along to petition, neither the local government nor the media would pay attention to my case."
Xu said he met Noble in 2009 when he was working in Russia as a vet. One day, while wandering around a Chinese market, he saw her struggling to talk to a shopkeeper with her limited Russian. He went up and helped her with the translation, they exchanged phone numbers and said their good-byes.
Soon after Xu returned to China in 2010, Noble told him she would be traveling to the country. The two met in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province and in February 2010, the couple were married. The news of a Chinese boy marrying a foreign wife made headlines in the local news. Many of Xu's relatives came to visit just to get a glimpse of the foreign bride.
The troubles all began last year, when the family became involved in a land dispute with their neighbors. Xu said his neighbors, who had connections with the local government, demolished his grandfather's house and bought the land at a cheap price. His grandfather later died from cancer.
In May 2012, Xu said he became involved in a physical confrontation with his neighbor when she came to humiliate his family. He said he slapped the woman and kicked her waist and thigh. The woman later sued him for intentional injury. Xu is now awaiting a court date.
Since then, Xu has brought along his family to go petitioning on three occasions. In April, a first-person narrative letter under the name of Xu Shuai Joanne was posted on a Baidu forum.
Xu then faced a dilemma when their story circulated widely on the Internet and attracted media attention. On the one hand, he said he was afraid the media exposure might anger local officials, but on the other, he hoped the media reports would influence the verdict in his case.
However, so far there has been no official media report and he has not heard from the petition office.
Xu said he is also seeking help from the British embassy for diplomatic protection and wants to bring his children back to London, his wife's hometown.
He said a consul from the British embassy who visited the family last year suggested that the only hope of getting protection from the embassy is to find a way to get into the embassy compound, as blind activist Chen Guangchen did.
"But I rejected the idea because I did not want to go that far," he said.
Kate Alden, Deputy Head of Communications (Media) at the embassy, told the Global Times that the embassy has provided consular assistance to the family, but did not comment on specifics of the case for data protection reasons.
Bai Daoyi, section chief at the Weifang Foreign Affairs Office, told the Global Times that someone from the British embassy did come to visit the family in October 2012, but it was to discuss the issue of their children's nationality, not Xu's petition.
Petition Chinese style
Asked why she accompanies her husband on his petitions, Noble said she does not really understand China's law.
Law professor Zhang Qin of Shantou University told the Global Times that many foreigners see Chinese law as being deeply flawed.
"When I was studying abroad 20 years ago, I found many people saw unfairness in China's law, they criticized the Chinese judiciary for its lack of independence."
"That unfairness remains, which is why they would rather go and petition Chinese-style," Zhang continued.
Every year, over 500,000 people petition authorities, and whenever a foreigner is involved, the case will stand out.
The first ever foreign petitioner is believed to be American Harvard graduate Julie Harms.
Back in 2009, 31-year-old Harms joined thousands of petitioners voicing grievances against their local government, over what she said were false charges leveled against her jailed Chinese fiancé.
Chinese netizens nicknamed her "foreign Qiu ju", the heroine of Zhang Yimou's 1992 movie The Story of Qiu Ju, the story of a pregnant peasant woman who seeks justice after the village chief kicks her husband in the groin.
Unlike Noble, Harms has a degree in international relations. She bought and studied a number of books on Chinese law, only to find that it was not much different to the law in the United States. The only difference lay in how they were enforced.
Her attorney at the time, Wu Zhijun, told the Global Times that he thinks foreigners like Harms should have used China's laws to protect their rights instead of resorting to petitioning.
"Petitioning is not the main way to protect your rights in China," Wu said. "The country is ruled by law."
However, after several rounds of failed attempts to meet Chinese officials because they were either "in a meeting" or "nowhere to be seen," Harms told the media, "I think in many places in China, the law really relies on people, relies on connections."
Case by case
Zhu Chenkang, a lawyer at Beijing Dongyuan Lawfirm, told the Global Times that whether or not the involvement of a foreign petitioner will help solve the problem depends on the individual case.
"But generally, foreigners in China enjoy preferential treatment," Zhu said.
During the process of Harms' petition, she often received invitations to sit inside and talk. She declined, and instead lined up with other Chinese petitioners.
She even walked into the United States embassy and demanded to meet President Barack Obama when he visited Beijing in 2009. She was asked to leave.
Harms' story, which was extensively reported by both American and Chinese media, seemed to have complicated the situation.
Li Xiangqian, an official of Wuhe county, was quoted by the media as saying that "Julie wanted to use her status as a foreigner to influence the case, but it is not going to work because China is not a 'slave of the foreigners' anymore."
Recently, another Chinese-style petition has landed on the doorstep of the White House itself. Due to doubts over the ability of the country's legal system to provide justice, over 127,000 Chinese have signed a petition on the White House website as of yesterday, urging the US to deport a suspect in a 19-year-old poisoning case.
In 1994, Zhu Ling, a chemistry student at Tsinghua University, was poisoned with thallium, a chemical often used in rat poison, and left paralyzed and brain-damaged.
Her roommate Sun Wei, who now allegedly lives in the US, was claimed by the petition as the major suspect.
Some Chinese netizens lamented the fact that "a country under the rule of law needs to petition other countries." Many of them are eagerly waiting to see how the White House responds to the case.
Noble said she has limited access to the Internet, and does not know what other petitioners are doing. She said she really wants to go back to London with her children.
"I told her, if you leave me in China, what can I do?" Xu asked.