Foreign hopes

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-8 19:28:02

Petitioners find temporary shelter under a bridge at Yongdingmen in Beijing on February 27. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Petitioners find temporary shelter under a bridge at Yongdingmen in Beijing on February 27. Photo: Li Hao/GT


The street outside of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls seems like a market. Petitioners aged between 2 and 90 are out on the street, sitting, chatting, eating, searching, complaining, teaching newcomers how to write letters, for a price, and selling the phone numbers of foreign correspondents.

Petitioner Hu Cheng from Chongqing has bought the phone numbers of several Beijing-based foreign news organizations, at 100 yuan each. He calls them repeatedly.

He tells them how he was locked up by the police while petitioning and they broke his legs. He cries on the phone while telling the story. Chinese news assistants answer the phone. They listen, and show sympathy, but seem to have no interest in publishing his story.

"No one listens to me, foreign news organizations are my last hope," Hu told the Global Times.

In China, when petitioners feel that their problem cannot be solved by the local legal authorities, they come to the capital to appeal to higher authorities.

As of January, there were about 700 foreign correspondents and 438 news organizations from 59 countries working in China. They often get calls, text messages or letters from petitions telling them stories like Hu's.

"When those petitioners feel that they can't have their voices heard by the authorities and the chance of solving problems is small, foreign media seems to be their last hope," Jin Yong, deputy professor of China Communication University, told the Global Times.

Long shot

The petition office is probably the busiest office in China. Government statistics show that it handles about 10 million complaints annually. However, only 0.2 percent of them have their problems successfully solved, according to a survey of some 600 petitioners in Beijing done by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2004.

When Xu Wei, a news assistant for the Nine Network Australia, received the call from Hu, she said she felt sorry for him, but there is not too much she can do for him. So she forwarded his story to other Chinese news assistants.

"Most of their stories are pretty much the same: forced-relocation and corruption," Xu told the Global Times. "I can't believe people would sell our phone numbers to them and make a fortune from these poor people."

The International Press Center in Beijing publishes an annual blue handbook that lists contacts of all the foreign correspondents based in China. Most of the petitioners want to get their hands on this little blue book, which is not available on the market. Once some petitioners get the contact number of a foreign correspondent, the number will be shared or sold.

Among all the petitioners who want to talk to foreign media, there is one nicknamed "Uncle Chongqing." He is a regular caller. He often calls and claims something bad is happening in the suburbs of Beijing. Many Chinese news assistants who have answered his calls say his stories do not make sense.

Zhang Chi, producer of VRT, the Belgian Dutch language public broadcaster, gets calls from petitioners on a weekly basis. He ignores most of them and does not bother to tell the foreign correspondent.

"Even though we do report their stories, it doesn't seem to help them to solve their problems," he said.

Xu agrees, "It puts the foreign media into an embarrassing situation as they expect too much from us."

Zhang said blind barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng and artist Ai Weiwei are among the few people who have their voices heard through intense international news coverage and benefited from it.

There are many activists in China. But none of them seems to have attracted the same amount of media attention as Chen, a local activist for people who claimed to be treated unfairly under the family-planning policy. When he was under house arrest in Linyi, Shandong Province between 2010 and 2012, it was reported that visitors, including famous actor Christian Bale and foreign reporters, were violently turned back when they tried to reach him in his village.

The swarm of Western media and human rights organizations put a huge amount of pressure on the Chinese government, which later agreed to him moving to the US with the help of the US government.

But not everyone is as lucky as Chen and Ai. Others who had talked to foreign media have been reportedly questioned by the police or sent to mental institutions.

Wang Feng, a news assistant based in Beijing who refused to name her news organization, told the Global Times that one of their interviewees was forcibly locked up in a mental hospital after the interview.

It was 2009, when she and the foreign correspondent were covering a story in Jiangxi Province. They met a petitioner who tried to pitch his story to them. They did not use his story in the end but later they got a call from the petitioner's girlfriend, saying he was imprisoned in a mental hospital after the interview.

So Wang called the local public relationship department and told them they heard their interviewee was sent to a mental hospital. The official said they were not sure. But later on the petitioner called with good news. He had been released.

"If there was any help we can do for him, I think that was it," Wang said.

Wang herself is no stranger to petitions. In the year of 2010 when she learned her mother, who was a primary school teacher in Taiqian county, Henan Province, failed to get a pension due to her early retirement, Wang decided to use petitions to raise the issue.

Only a few weeks after she wrote a petition letter on the website of the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, she got a call from the staff and was told things had been handled.

"The reason they get back to me so fast is probably because they knew I work for a foreign news organization," she said.

Officials are believed to pay more attention to unfavorable reports about China in foreign media. As the traditional saying goes, "Keep shame inside the home."

The next thing she knew she was greeting with the principal of the school who was fired because of her letter.

Wang said she was shocked when she got back from a work trip, only to find that the principal was waiting at her home, with a bandage on his wrist. "His wife told me he was so angry that he smashed a window," she said.

The couple came all the way to Beijing to ask her to sign up a letter, on which she would promise she never petitioned again. With this letter, the principal might get his job back.

"It wasn't my intention to get him fired. I just want to help my mother to get her money," she said.

She informed her organization that she was petitioning. "I am very grateful that my job kind of protects me from being sent back home by the local police or locked up in a mental hospital."

After rounds of negotiations, she eventually signed the letter. After the principal got his job back, she never heard from him again. Her mother's problems still remain unsolved.

Secret methods

In many cases, petitions were reportedly being rounded up in Beijing by men hired by provincial authorities to prevent the central government from learning of problems in outlying regions.

However, it does not seem to stop petitioners from looking for foreign reporters. A petitioner who refused to be named told the Global Times she often follows foreigners who hold a camera or a notebook and seem like reporters.

"I can't speak English and I don't want police to find out I was in contact with them, so I follow them and quietly put my petitioning letters into their pocket and bag," she said.

She never gets any reply. Neither does Wu Wanlu, the owner of a bookstore in Beijing. He has been lodging complaints against corrupt government officials since 2009, when he was forced to move from his home by the local authorities. To protest, Wu turned his house into a bookstore.

Unlike other petitioners who keep calling foreign media, Wu wants the foreign media to call him. He puts on a huge poster on the window of the bookstore. It reads in English: "Foreign reporters, help me! Please!"

"I believe the Chinese government respects human rights, but some corrupt officials violate our rights for their own interests," it says. "Please help to disclose their greedy behavior."

Four years have past, over 40 foreign media outlets have contacted him and he has made friends with some foreigners. He has told his stories a million times, but the poster is still there, as well as his problems.

"Some Chinese come to my shop and call me an American spy. My neighbors are afraid to talk to me," he told the Global Times. "I don't encourage people to copy my way because I don't want to make trouble."

 Lin Yun contributed to this story


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