Punished supplicants
By Jamil Anderlini

Published: March 5 2009 20:07 | Last updated: March 5 2009 20:07

As dawn breaks over Beijing’s ancient Gate of Eternal Stability, a large crowd gathers in its shadow, in an alleyway just inside the old city walls.

The scene, however, is anything but stable. Those gathered there are from the country’s downtrodden, people with grievances against the government who have made their way to the capital to petition China’s modern-day mandarins.

When the crowd spots a foreign journalist, many rush forward waving their petition documents and shouting their grievances: “My daughter was murdered and the police did nothing,” says Yan Zizhan, a petitioner from Henan province. “I was beaten up by officials from the family planning department because I wouldn’t have sex with one of them,” says Liu Zhongwei, from Shandong province.

China has seen an explosion of popular protests in recent years and, as the economy slows, the nation’s leaders have repeatedly made clear their concern that social unrest is on the rise. But in the absence of democracy or an independent legal system, the Communist party relies on a 3,000-year-old pressure release valve known as the “petitioning system” to deal with dissatisfaction among the masses.

On paper, the system allows the lowliest subjects to take complaints directly to the highest authority in the land. In reality, this relic has itself become a tool of repression and a symbol of how incomplete China’s political transformation has been in comparison with its economic development over the last three decades.

“There is no substantial difference between today’s petitioning system and the system in place 1,000 years ago,” according to Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing-based lawyer and human rights activist who, like many in China today, say the petitioning system is broken and needs to be abolished. “The three essential elements – the emperor, the officials and the injured citizens – have the same relationship. The emperor wants to resolve a portion of the people’s grievances so as to maintain the stability of his regime but the officials have their own interests to think about.”

In olden times, if an aggrieved subject could make it to the capital, he was entitled to beat the imperial drum to attract the attention of the emperor or his staff. Today, modern transport and a host of grievances thrown up by wrenching social change mean the system is overwhelmed and the government spends more energy trying to dissuade people from petitioning than it does trying to resolve their problems.

The Offices of Letters and Calls that are attached to every layer of the government in every part of China to accept petitions provide the only legitimate channel for citizens to complain about alleged crimes or misconduct perpetrated by officials. The one in the shadow of the Gate of Stability is the highest such office in the land.

Visitors to this office soon notice the heavy-set men in civilian clothes watching the crowds of disgruntled petitioners. Known as jiefangren, or petition interceptors, they are government officials, police officers or sometimes just hired thugs sent by regional and provincial governments to repatriate petitioners before they cause a fuss in the capital. “Sometimes they will resort to violence to stop them,” says Mr Xu, the lawyer. “This place is like an alleyway in hell; with so much naked savagery and violence, it gives us a concentrated glimpse of all the sicknesses in Chinese society.”

Many petitioners bring relatively minor business disputes that local officials are unable or unwilling to resolve. At the other end of the spectrum are accusations of murder, torture and rape inflicted at the hands of government and police officials. Many profess their devotion to the leaders of the Communist party and say that if only they can get their story heard, the benevolent modern-day emperor will punish their oppressors.

“I trust in the party and the central government to bring justice to us ordinary people, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” says Zhao Guang­jun, 43, a villager from Hebei province who is there to complain about local officials whom he claims took peasant farmers’ land and divided it among themselves, then hired gangsters to beat up the farmers when they complained.

But very few will find any kind of resolution at the petition offices and most will have their lives made much worse. As many as 12.7m petitions were filed in 2005, according to latest government figures, but “some official surveys show that less than 1 per cent of petitioners achieve satisfaction”, says Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University and expert in Chinese law. “It increases the grievance and frustration because people go from pillar to post without a remedy; everybody tries to transfer responsibility, if they are a government official, from their agency to another.”

The formal evaluation criteria and bonus schemes of Chinese government officials depend partly on the number of petitioners from their jurisdiction, creating a powerful incentive for them to stop complaints reaching the central government. Beijing itself has an ambivalent view of the system, hailing it as an essential element of China’s “mass democracy” but fearful of outright rebellion by the multitude of petitioners who descend on the capital. In fact, the activities of the jiefangren are at the very least tolerated and usually facilitated by all levels of China’s government and police.

In preparation for the Olympic Games last year, an order went out from Beijing to local governments to stop petitioners from coming to the capital, in order to “create a healthy social environment for the successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics”. Although the order from the Ministry of Public Security did say the system should be more responsive to people’s needs and officials must act in a “civilised” way, the emphasis was on stopping petitioners from ruining the show. This put pressure on local officials to step up their interception efforts. According to human rights groups, repression and illegal detentions increased during the Olympic period.

Over months of interviews, the Financial Times heard numerous accounts and witnessed several examples of officials from the Offices of Letters and Calls or Beijing police working in collusion with interceptors to help detain and abduct petitioners. When interceptors identify people from their region outside the petition office, they approach them and try to get them to return home quietly, ostensibly so their grievances can be “resolved” locally.

Some petitioners are promised quick fixes to their problems; others go willingly in the hope of a free trip home or a place to stay while in Beijing. Those who refuse to accompany these men are usually taken by force. Often they are taken to detention centres operating like private prisons and known as “black jails”. Mr Xu says: “Black jails are places used by provincial governments to illegally imprison petitioners; we call them black jails because, first, they are just like prisons – established by the government to restrict people’s freedom – and, second, they are ‘black’ because they have no basis in any laws or regulations and are totally illegal.”

Such facilities exist all over China but especially in Beijing, where they are often no more than a few rooms in a hostel or an unused warehouse. Once detained, petitioners can be subjected to “thought reform” and “re-education” techniques that range from cajoling and threats to extortion, beatings and outright torture. In its submission last month to the United Nations quadrennial review of China’s human rights record, the government explicitly denied the existence of black jails or arbitrary detention, in what Amnesty International and other human rights groups describe as a whitewash.

“Our law clearly prohibits private detention facilities and there are no such things as black jails in the country ... The law on detention further prohibits any abuse, physical or oral, of detainees,” Song Hansong, a senior official from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the state prosecutor, told the UN review in Geneva.

. . .

But in researching this article, the FT visited a number of black jails in Beijing, talked to dozens of petitioners who had been detained in them and interviewed several “petition interceptors” who talked openly about their activities. Petitioners picked up by Beijing police are often taken to one of the city’s large “relief and service centres”, which are supposed to be homeless shelters but operate as clearing houses for interceptors, who arrive in cars with provincial licence plates and leave with petitioners from their region.

One such detention centre, known as Majialou and conveniently located near the Gate of Stability petition office, holds thousands of people at a time, most of them petitioners, according to guards interviewed by the FT.

China’s annual meeting of its rubber-stamp parliament, which convened on Thursday, is a peak time for petitioners in Beijing and the entrance to the Majialou facility has been crowded this week with hundreds of interceptors waiting to retrieve petitioners. “Sometimes there are so many petitioners the [Beijing police] have to bring them in buses,” says one of the security guards outside Majialou while indicating an empty city bus leaving the facility. “The interceptors are informed about people from their region and they come to collect them; if the petitioners aren’t willing to go, they’re beaten and sometimes they have their bones broken.”

These “relief centres” operate in a legal grey zone, somewhere between formal detention facilities and black jails. They are the remnants of a system abolished four years ago, under which urban police could detain anyone without a residence permit and repatriate them to their home town.

Petitioners who have been intercepted are usually kept only a few days in Beijing before they are sent home – where they are confronted by the very people they have accused of crimes and misconduct. If they refuse to give up their petitions, they will often be illegally detained for months, beaten, tortured or sent to extra-judicial “re-education through labour” camps for up to three years for daring to tarnish the names of officials.

Even the state-controlled media have recently reported cases of local officials illegally committing healthy petitioners to mental health facilities to stop them from taking their protests to the capital. “One of the biggest headaches in Chinese justice today is that the police take many measures that are not authorised – and to assist them they use non-police people who are just ad hoc recruited,” Prof Cohen says.

Many petitioners give up after a few attempts, once they get a glimpse of the horrors that await them. But others continue for decades, their initial complaint often forgotten as they seek justice for beatings and torture inflicted after they entered the petition system.

Activists such as Mr Xu who dare to discuss politics say China’s top-down political structure is the main reason why the petition system has become so distorted. “Every level of the government is responsible to those above it, not to the people. So they really don’t care what befalls the people, they only care about the orders given to them by their leaders,” he says.

Given the improbability of imminent political reform, the pressure on this system is likely only to increase in the coming months as China’s economy slows and many more lose their jobs. “Even during the fat years of the last decade China has witnessed an astounding number of public protests; now China is confronting lean years, this means there is going to be more public protest, not less,” says Prof Cohen. “There is no doubt China’s legal and petitioning systems are entering a period of considerable crisis.”


Sitting in a dumpling shop in Beijing last November, Chen Xuefeng and Li Yan were upbeat as they recounted their first visit to the State Office of Letters and Calls. “They treated us so well, gave us tea and saw us to the door afterwards,” according to Ms Li. “They told us to come back in three months if we hadn’t heard anything.”

The mood turned sombre as the women explained what motivated them to travel 2,000km from their home in Sichuan province to present their case in the capital. On May 12, Ms Chen’s son and Ms Li’s daughter were crushed to death along with 124 other children when their primary school collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake.

A month and a half later, the Financial Times visited the school, where parents were holding a vigil and demanding an investigation into why the building had collapsed while most others around it remained standing. Wearing a T-shirt with the words “I love China”, Ms Chen pointed out the dangerously thin steel reinforcing beams, the shallow foundations and mortar and bricks that crumbled when squeezed.

Local government officials initially showed sympathy for the parents’ plight and offered compensation in return for their dropping demands for an investigation. But when attempts to buy their silence failed, the officials turned to threats and intimidation. The parents’ phones were tapped and they were warned of dire consequences if they continued to “make a fuss”.

“We are not afraid; only when those conscienceless people who built the school and ran the education department have got the punishment they deserve will I be able to stand in front of my child’s grave and tell him how he left the world,” Ms Chen says.

During their November trip, which stretched their budgets to the limit, Ms Li, Ms Chen and two other parents visited three petition offices and even tried to present their grievance personally to Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister.

That attempt was unsuccessful but the parents left Beijing in higher spirits, expecting a quick reply to their complaint from the central government.

On their return to Sichuan, the threats from local officials increased and the parents were told it was illegal for them to meet or talk to foreign journalists. They received no response from Beijing and local police told them their case was hopeless.

Ms Li had clearly lost her earlier faith when she returned to Beijing in mid-January with another group of parents from her late daughter’s school. On that trip, officials were much less cordial and refused to discuss the progress of their petition. The bereaved parents returned empty-handed to Sichuan.

Although disillusioned with the petitioning system, they have vowed to continue fighting. “The government has been watching us very closely to stop us going back to Beijing. But I am not afraid to be caught or to die, because I have no more hope left,” Ms Li told the FT last week. “I will go again to petition in Beijing in May.”


Through dynasties to disillusion

China’s petition system dates back to the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago. It embodies a Confucian tradition that idealises an authoritarian yet benevolent ruler who puts the concerns of his subjects above the interests of corrupt officials.

After the 1911 republican revolution, petitioning was abolished by the Nationalist government. The Communists reinstated it soon after their 1949 revolution.

Experts say petitioning remains basically unchanged from the system in place 500 years ago in the Ming dynasty, when the formal evaluation of government officials began to take into account the number of petitioners who travelled to the capital from their region.

A 2004 survey of petitioners by the China Academy of Social Sciences, an official think-tank, found that:

● 50.4% said they had been detained for petitioning;

● 53.6% said they had been beaten up on the orders of offficials;

● 94.6% of first-time petitioners believed on their initial day in Beijing that the central government truly welcomed petitions – by day seven this fell to 39.3%;

● 1.8% believed on day one that the central government would take revenge on them for petitioning – by day seven this rose to 60.7%.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009


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