EDITOR'S DESK
Protect the Right to Petition
  



 

Life in a Struggle

Frustration and desperation are at the core of seeking justice through
China’s petition system. Officials are trying to ease the burden

By LI LI

JUSTICE, PLEASE: Guo Yuxiang, a 53-year-old mother, pleads for the release of her son, who was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve in an allegedly misjudged case

It’s a story as old as China itself. A commoner feels wronged by an overbearing local government and decides to seek justice. The individual travels for months on an arduous journey to the capital city to appeal to the emperor. A long wait begins. On one of the emperor’s rare trips out of his palace, the wronged kowtows in front of the royal sedan. Written materials describing the case are offered and the bitter story is explained in tears. After hearing the story, the emperor decides to render justice, or not.

Today, nearly a century after China’s last emperor was forced to abdicate and thousands of years of imperial rule came to an end, the modern version of the judicial tradition called “gao yu zhuang,” literally translated as “appealing to the emperor,” continues.

In the center of Beijing, beside the Nanerhuan Lu, a slum-like village sits in stark contrast to the prosperous surroundings of modern skyscrapers and office buildings. It is a compound of roughly 200 crumbling rooms. At the gate, there are fetid piles of rotting garbage circled by flies. Inside every dark and stuffy room, four to 10 creaky beds sit close together. There are few clothes strewn here and there, but the room is mostly littered with stacks and stacks of thick photocopied documents.

In modern China, this is where the desperate and the discouraged end up. From all over the country, those seeking justice travel with their paper grievances to Beijing to petition the Central Government. They inevitably end up waiting, for months, even for years, for their cases to be ruled on. With little money, and nowhere else to go they wind up in these old brick buildings--a displaced and forgotten community near the railroad to Beijing’s South Railway Station.

Life Seeking Justice

LAW STUDENTS: A petitioner who declined to be named (in white) says she spends at least five hours studying law every day to make her documents more persuasive and attention grabbing

The trains that enter and leave South Station pass by the village 24 hours a day. The buildings tremble and plaster falls from the ceilings and walls. There are no home appliances. No furniture. No bathroom. A cold shower costs 1 yuan ($0.12). And the paltry lodging costs 3 to 5 yuan ($0.37-$0.62) a day. But many feel that the facilities are well worth the price. It’s better than the alternative. In the summer, those who cannot afford the rent simply pitch tents beside the village.

This is a compound with little joy and few recreation options. Everywhere people wear the same sorrowful look. The only indication of a community life is a mah-jong table that belongs to the landlord. “No petitioner has ever played mah-jong on that table,” said Tian Yu, a frequent tenant of the compound over the last six years. “We’re never in the mood.”

At its peak, as many as 2,000 people have lived in the village, according to a report by China Youth Daily published last December.

Most of the people come from outside of Beijing, from rural areas and small cities. They have complaints against their local governments and say that the court system has failed them. They all share the common aspiration of getting justice from the top.

Wu Laixi is a former civil servant from Guangdong Province who has traveled to Beijing 18 times to complain about his persecution by local government after he reveled to a CCTV program how officials were involved in the destruction of the local environment for economic gains.

“I came to Beijing because it could not be solved locally,” he said. “If it could, then what am I doing in Beijing?”

Wu Mingyou, a farmer from Jiangxi Province who has traveled to Beijing three times to report on local government’s embezzlement of resettlement funds for displaced farmers of a dam construction. Asked why he did not go back to solve his problem locally, Wu said, “Local officials hate me so much and how could they help solve my problem?”

The petitioners choose to live on the compound because of its close proximity, about a 15-minute walk, to the petition office of the State Council. All government divisions have their own offices to receive complaints. But the State Bureau for Letters and Calls is the highest authority of the petition system. It is about four miles away from the village.

Every morning, they get up before 6 a.m. to wait in long queues before the reception offices open. Only early birds have the opportunity to talk to the receptionists and hand in their materials before the official lunch break. Most petitioners filed an average of six petitions in different government agencies, according to a six-month study of 632 Beijing petitioners published in 2004 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Yu Jianrong. In one case, a petitioner filed a case in 18 different government agencies.

Need for Reforms

STACKS OF MATERIAL: Piles of legal documents are the common possession of every petitioner

The first incarnation of the national petition system was launched in 1951 as a new branch of the government. The petition system has evolved into a five-tier national system with administrative, legislative and judicial branches from the lowest township level to the highest central level, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls.

The increasing number of petition cases has been straining the national system since 1993, according to former Director of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls Zhou Zhanshun.

Yu Jianrong’s research report shows that the total number of petition cases in China has grown each year for the past 11 years. For example, the number of petition cases at the State Council Petition Office in the first quarter of 2004 increased 99.4 percent over the same period of the previous year.

Two reasons have fueled the sharp increase of petition cases, Zhou Zhanshun said. One is that people are becoming more aware of their civil rights. The other is that many people feel victimized by the reconfiguration of the social systems that have resulted from China’s economic boom. Zhou continued that the majority of petition-related conflicts in the last 10 years have been over land disputes in rural areas, insufficient compensation for resettled urban residents, the lack of social security for laid-off workers, unpaid pensions for retired workers of state-owned enterprises, and judicial corruption.

Zhou said he believes that more than 80 percent of the petitioners have legitimate cases that should be solved by related government branches.

Having recognized the problems with the nation’s petition system, the Central Government has begun reforms to make it more efficient. Authorities have introduced new methods to handle petitions and are pushing administrators to solve cases quickly. One of the new regulations, which were publicized on January 17 this year and finally took effect on May 1, requires administrators to rule on cases within 90 days.

The regulation is just one of the reforms designed to ease the burden and the wait of those seeking justice through the system. The rules pass ultimate responsibility of handling petition cases to county-level offices. They are required to have websites that list the contact information of the offices and to advise on ways to find information on any developments in cases. The new regulations also stipulate that petition cases should not be dragged out longer than 90 days. If petitioners are not satisfied with the local government’s ruling, they can appeal to a higher level of government. Appeals must be ruled on within 30 days.

Nanfang Daily based in southern Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, summarized the regulation changes: First of all, there is the time limit; second, the new rules will include the performance of the local government in their overall job evaluation, and the local government will be held legally accountable for any violation of petitioners’ legal rights as well as any administrative misconduct.

Directly after the new regulations, many of the petitioners returned to their hometowns with new hope that their cases would be solved. A landlord at the Beijing housing compound said the business of renting out bedding declined steadily in the first few months following the new regulations. But there was a rebound in August as petitioners who failed to solve problems back home returned to Beijing to appeal to higher authorities.

Still others never left, choosing to stay in Beijing with the belief that the Central Government will someday deliver them justice. A petitioner from Inner Mongolia Ma Baocheng said, “I have great faith in the Central Government, which has wise policies. It’s only that some local officials fail to faithfully implement them.”

Fatal Flaws

WAIT AND WAIT: Petitioners have to overcome the emotional drain of the seemingly endless wait for a decision on their grievance

However, judicial experts don’t think the reforms are enough. He Weifang, a Peking University law professor, believes the petition system has proven to be ineffective in solving legal issues and the best solution is to totally scrap it. He and others argue that the petition system shouldn’t be maintained just because it is something unique to China. It is antiquated and inconsistent with the common legal practices of most modern societies, they say. Professor He suggests that the government should focus on building an independent legal system with due authority and not waste time on petition reforms.

At the end of his research report, titled “Flaws of the Petition System and Its Political Consequences,” Yu Jianrong also concludes that the system should be dropped and the public allowed redress solely through the judicial system.

However, some experts and lawyers believe that the petition system is still necessary despite its failings. They claim that the legal system cannot withstand the high levels of discontent in the population.

Li Ying is a lawyer from Peking University Women’s Law Studies and Legal Aid Center, a nongovernmental organization devoted to offering free legal service to women who cannot afford a lawyer. According to Li, women farmers are among the most disadvantaged social groups in this country. “In rural areas, female farmers enjoy lower education levels and narrower opportunities compared with male farmers,” Li said. “They make up a large petitioning group mostly because they don’t have the consciousness to protect their interests by law. They usually are reluctant to sue government officials for fear that the lawsuits will result in reprisal since they have to remain in the village.”

In a recent case, Li represented five women farmers from Tongcheng City, Anhui Province, in a class-action lawsuit. The five women had used the petition system at the provincial government to no avail. With Li they sued local authorities for depriving them of compensation for their land on the ground that they married outside of the village. On August 22, the ruling was delivered to Li at her Beijing office. Each of her clients would receive a compensation of 5,000 yuan ($616.5) for losing land to a real estate developer.

Li pointed out that women losing land after changing residence after getting marriage has become a national concern and is a frequently petitioned issue. She decided to take the case to set a legal precedence for women facing similar problems.

Maintaining that her legal victory would have been unimaginable in the petition system, Li is firmly opposed to ending the system. She said that the astronomical injustices buried in such a huge population would create too much pressure for the current nascent judiciary system to handle.

The Chinese Government based its overhaul on similar concerns. At a press conference on April 28, Wei Jinmu, Deputy Director of State Bureau for Letters and Calls, said the new reform and new regulation would “make the petition system play an even bigger role in maintaining social stability and facilitating economic and social development.”

Supporting Reforms

This year, there have been national campaigns within both the judiciary system and police system.

In addition to the new government regulations enacted in May, almost all provincial governments issued related measures to ensure that petitioners have more opportunities to talk directly to top local government officials.

A five-month campaign within the national police system was carried out from May through September. It required police chiefs at all-levels to meet and listen to petitioners face-to-face. According to a report from Xinhua News Agency, in the first three months of the campaign, a total of 185,000 cases had been dealt with. Of those, petitioners agreed to drop 163,000 cases, or 88 percent of the total. On August 18, the Ministry of Public Security issued a decree that aims to make activities of the trial campaign a regular practice.

Results of Yu Jianrong’s survey administered to 632 farmer petitioners in Beijing:

-- Only 0.2 percent of petitioners resolved their problems directly through the petition system;

-- 90.5 percent came for the purpose of “informing the Central Government about the problems;”

-- 88.5 percent wanted to “apply pressure on local governments to get the problems solved;”

-- 81.2 percent “knew that the Central Government cannot solve the problems directly, but they were hoping to obtain an official directive;”

-- Polled on retaliation as a result of petition, 55.4 percent have experienced confiscation of personal properties, and 5.36 percent experienced retaliation from underworld figures directed by others due to the petition;

-- 63 percent said that they had taken their cases to local courts first. Of these, 43 percent said the local courts refused to accept the case. Another 55 percent said that the court did not give a verdict according to the law;

-- After experiencing setback, 91.2 percent said that they will continue to petition until they achieve their objectives, 87.3 percent said that they will petition to death with the corrupt officials, 85.5 percent said they will publicize policies and laws in order to mobilize the public to support their rights, 53.6 percent said that they will do “something that will scare the cadres,” only 5.8 percent will accept the result without further protest.

Hard Knocks

Poor living conditions at Beijing’s petitioner’s village are only a part of the hard life of petitioners.

The Central Government judges the performance of local government officials by the number of the cases that come into the central petition offices. The more petition cases that come in, the worse the performance of the local officials.

This has had a perverse effect on the petition community. Local governments often try to intervene and prevent petitioners from filing their grievances in Beijing. Plainclothes police officers and petition officials are sent to stop petitioners. These so-called “interceptors” usually follow their targets, first trying to persuade them to solve their problems at the local level. But many petitioners claim that it goes far beyond mere persuasion, into intimidation and sometimes even physical abuse if they refuse to leave Beijing.

Gu Chenxiang is a 43-year-old petitioner from Inner Mongolia who has been petitioning in Beijing. She is seeking adequate compensation for being evicted from her home. She said that before the new regulations took effect she was followed and interrogated by interceptors during her walk to the State Council petition office.

“They kept asking me where I was from while pushing and shoving me,” she said. “I said nothing for fear that my accent would give me away and interceptors from Inner Mongolia would take me back.”

Petitioners say that they still have problems with interceptors, even after the new rules were adopted prohibiting any interference with their right to petition.

Even when the central office considers a petition, it seldom results in the kind of justice petitioners seek. According to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Yu Jianrong’s six-month study, only 0.2 percent of petitioners resolved their problems satisfactorily through the petition system.

Many petitioners find themselves frustrated by the experience and blame it on the “pass-the-buck” tendencies of central offices. Typically, petition officials at the central level have neither the information nor the power to dictate how to resolve local matters. So most of the cases are referred back to local governments anyway. Opponents of the petition system complain that when a case fails to be resolved, the whole process turns out to be a tremendous waste of resources.

In the instance that the central office makes a ruling, there is rarely any enforcement. To the disappointment of many petitioners, the new regulations have failed to add any stipulations that add enforcement to rulings.

Tian Yu, 50, is a petitioner from central Henan Province. She said she was laid off as a worker at a state-owned enterprise in 1998 only because a relative of a local government official needed her job. She has been petitioning all levels of government, from the county level to the central level, over the last eight years.

Tian said the new regulations gave her hope. So she traveled to Beijing in June and succeeded in getting a reply from the State Bureau for Letters and Calls instructing the provincial petition authorities to help investigate and solve Tian’s case. She next obtained a reply from the provincial petition office instructing the county government to solve her problem. At the county level, the complaint and the statements from higher authorities were ignored. “Petition officials regard the slip as their solution, even if it solves no problem at all,” said Tian.