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Petitioners: Beijing’s New Headache

The Office of Appeals in Beijing sees rise in petitioners – an ominous sign for social stability?

Homeless and dressed in shabby clothing not unlike that of a beggar, Mr. Su, a 67-year-old man from Liaoyang, stands in one of the several long lines in front of the offices of the National Appeals Bureau in Beijing. He has been waiting for six years, and each day he hopes to be admitted so that his story can be heard.

He is not alone. Each day, thousands of petitioners gather in front of the State Council, the Supreme Court, and the Prosecutor’s Office of Appeals in Beijing. Among them, there are retired Army officials, factory workers, miners, and farmers. Last year, the Supreme Court alone registered over 120,000 visits by petitioners. The Office of Appeals in the Ministry of Construction revealed that the number of visits from January to June this year exceeds the total number of visits from all of last year. The total number of visits to all the appeals offices at the Central Government level is estimated to be over one million in the past year. Many of these petitioners must wait years before they are heard, if they are heard at all. During this long wait, occasionally they are chased out of Beijing to their home provinces, or they may be put in temporary detention centers because they "adversely affect Beijing’s image," according to the Beijing City Government.

The Central Government is ill-equipped to deal with this situation. The National Appeals Bureau was designed to keep the communication channels open between the people and the Central Government, so that the masses have a place to be heard when injustices are done to them by local authorities. The bureau is required to "report to the leaders in the Party Central Committee Administrative Office, as well as leaders in the State Council Administrative Office, about any important suggestions, complaints, and problems reflected in the appeals letters and visits." However, the system is badly overloaded and largely ineffective.

Recently, some of the more desperate petitioners have made headlines, drawing attention from the media, Beijing’s residents, as well as the Central Government.

On August 19, 2004, six women from Liaoning province, who were in Beijing to accuse their local police departments, prosecutors, and courts of corruption, climbed on top of a six-story residential building about 500 ft away from Zhongnanhai, the central leadership compound in Beijing. They unfolded a banner that read, "If no one pays attention to us, we’ll jump." It took the authorities several hours to end the standoff, and police took those women into custody.

Fifty-nine-year-old Wang Yuanshun from Gansu province heard his name called while waiting in front of the Appeals Office of the People’s Supreme Court on August 17, 2004. He entered the office for his long awaited interview. But a few minutes later, he was grabbed by the neck and shoved out of the Appeals Office by the police. He fell to the ground outside of the door and died several hours later. The reason given for his ejection was that he entered the office without being called. Mr. Wang and his wife had come to Beijing to seek justice for their son’s wrongful death.
Most of these petitioners came from other cities or provinces. Recently, Beijing residents joined the petitioners as their homes were demolished for real estate development projects. The compensation is not enough for a new home, and many of them ended up among the petitioners in front of the government buildings.

Mr. Ye Guoqiang protested against the Beijing municipal government, who evicted him from his home and demolished his house, in front of Tiananmen Square. The Beijing Municipal Court sentenced him to two years in prison. His older brother Mr. Ye Guozhu told the reporter, "My brother is a handicapped person. When his house was demolished for a new housing project, he was not compensated fairly, and he cannot afford to find another home. He does not have a job because of his disability, and there is nowhere for him to appeal."

Mr. Ye Guozhu owned a small restaurant with a commercial license issued by the city and county governments. However, his restaurant was in an area designated for the 2008 Olympic Stadium. In August 2003, his restaurant was labeled as "operating without proper permits" and torn down without compensation. When he pulled out the government-issued license, he was told that "the license was issued by the previous government" and did not count.

These cases only represent a tip of the iceberg. In 2003, over 24,000 homes were torn down in the city of Chengdu, and over 900,000 people were forced to relocate in Shanghai since 1991. Many people came to Beijing and became petitioners. They were abused by the policemen and arrested without warrants, according to reports from Voice of America and Epoch Times. According to Tang Boqiao, a Radio Free Asia commentator, Ms. Feng Yongji came to Beijing to appeal for justice after wrongful treatment by the local government. She was arrested nine times on the charge of "unreasonable petitioning." Apart from these spontaneous individual and small group actions, several attempted demonstrations gave indications of the scale and intensity of the problem.

In June of this year, two Beijing residents sent a request to the Beijing Police Department on behalf of the petitioners for a large-scale demonstration be held on July 1. The estimated number of participants was over 10,000. The request was turned down, and the two key organizers – Mr. Ye Guozhu, whose story was mentioned in this article, and Ms. Ni Yulan, who is an attorney in Beijing – were tailed and harassed by police.

It was reported by Radio Free Asia that a month later, Mr. Li Xiaocheng and Ms. Li Chunyin printed 2,000 posters to call on petitioners in Beijing to join a march on August 7 at Tiananmen Square. The participants numbered over 10,000. Mr. Li sent in an application requesting a permit for the march on July 30, and he was subsequently detained at the police station for over 72 hours. The application was ignored. Policemen arrested the organizers at 3:00 am on August 7, but thousands of petitioners still joined the march in Beijing, according to a report by Epoch Times. Mr. Li is a 57-year-old retired army officer who has been petitioning for the past seven years to protest wrongful treatment at the hands of the local government in Xinjiang.
Another attempt for a large-scale demonstration took place in late August during the Athens Olympics. Over 60 people representing petitioners from Beijing, Tianjin, and other northeast areas filed an application for a 10,000-person march on September 18, a significant date that marked Manchuria being taken by Japan in 1936. At the time, hundreds of thousands Northerners fled their homes in Manchuria.

The Beijing government took harsher measures this time. At 4:00 am on September 17, 37 police cars, including three buses for transporting prisoners, surrounded the areas where petitioners live. Over 50 policemen went house by house and arrested over one thousand petitioners who were going to join the march on the day. The story was told by a petitioner who escaped the search.

Before the Chinese National Day, October 1, Beijing policemen stepped up arrests. On September 28, several buses took petitioners away before the Supreme Court in Beijing to the Shijingshan Sports Center, where they would be temporarily detained and later sent back to their home provinces. It has been reported that more than 10,000 petitioners have been detained at once at this center.

Although these petitioners can be taken away and demonstrations can be suppressed, the root cause remains unsolved. Who are these petitioners? What brought them to Beijing and led them to settle in the "petitioners’ village"? A report written by students from the Science and Technology University in Beijing discussed these problems and challenges faced by the petitioners:

"Upon arrival at the petitioners’ village, we were escorted into an extremely narrow hallway. The floor was dark, slippery and piled with cooking wares. We turned and squeezed into a room. Inside, it was even darker. There were twenty people living in less than 20 square meters of space. The beds were covered with ragged mats, sheets or quilts. The smell in the room almost suffocated us."

The university students were shocked to see the conditions there. Later they learned that only those who can afford to pay 2 Chinese yuan for rent can stay in the rooms, while those who cannot pay stay under bridges or in the streets. An older man told the students that last year when it snowed, he saw seven people die. The students later solicited donations when they went back to their university and sent some clothes to the petitioners’ village.

"Right after we entered the room, we were surrounded by the petitioners, who handed us piles of complaints. Some were accumulated for years, even for a decade. We didn’t have time to read the materials; we were listening to them…"
"We did not expect to receive the complaints, as we knew that we could not help them with their cases. But they kept on giving the papers to us. They were telling us to take the materials because the Appeals Office had refused to take them. They knew we could not help, but they still wanted us to have them."

"Most of the cases are not that complicated. It is easy to see who is to blame. But the local government many times took bribes and covered up the crimes or simply made a mistake but did not want to admit it. This has led to the escalation of the conflicts."

The Chinese Constitution stipulates the protection of private property and human rights, but the local and the central governments have failed miserably on both counts. In fact, government officials are the biggest violators of these two items.

Nevertheless, there is still hope. Mr. Ye Guozhu told a newspaper correspondent that many citizens in China who wanted to appeal for the issues of forced demolition and eviction have contacted him. He is in the process of setting up a non-government organization called "The Association for Protection of Citizens’ Basic Rights in China." This may become a platform for some petitioners to voice their opinions and a vehicle for protecting human rights in China.

So far, none of the organized demonstrations have been successful. However, the attempts marked the beginning of an emerging civil disobedience movement that leverages rights protected by the Chinese Constitution, as well as large-scale coordination among the thousands of petitioners in Beijing.

The Chinese government has recognized the problem’s seriousness, but the leadership has yet to take discernible action. In its recent document "Decision on Strengthening the Ruling Party’s Governing Ability," the Central Committee under Hu Jintao stated that reform is in a critical state, and warned that it’s a matter of survival for the Party to improve its governance ability. However, recent actions by the government seemed to point towards even tougher treatment of peaceful protestors. For example, Mr. Ye Guozhu was formally arrested on September 17, and news of police brutality against peaceful petitioners just kept coming. Another indicator is that Falun Gong, the largest religious group in China under persecution, still reports torture and killings of its practitioners more than 5 years after the persecution against it started.

The trouble for Beijing is that once the people can no longer tolerate the corruption, suppression, and persecution, the government would lose its mandate and cannot hope to maintain control anymore. The long-waited political reform might be a solution, but it depends on the willingness of the top officials to leave behind the ways of dictatorship. It may prove to be medicine that’s too hard to swallow for the Party leaders.

Lee Ann is a correspondent for Chinasacope.