China’s Angry Petitioners

Sara Davis – The Asian Wall Street Journal

25 August 2005
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(c) 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
This summer, I took a research team to Beijing to document police abuse against petitioners for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report. In pairs and small groups, over the course of two weeks, the victims straggled into our various meeting rooms, hidden around the city. Some were on crutches after beatings in detention, while others had lost fingers to torture. Many had the blank gaze acquired over long months of imprisonment. Together, they formed a river of internal refugees fleeing state violence. In thick local dialects, they recounted experiences of police violence, including attacks by local police who came to Beijing to prevent them petitioning.
Recently, China has announced a new program aimed at solving these problems: the state will send these petitioners back to meet with local police chiefs. The program is either naive or cynical: it is like sending sheep to meet with wolves.
To be fair, in some cases, police chiefs are honest officials who act fairly. But others are the same police chiefs formerly ordered by local officials to beat petitioners, torture them, imprison them, and stop them from getting to Beijing in the first place. In a few cases — and imagining these meetings boggles the mind — they will be the very police officers who are the subjects of the original complaints.
Without basic protections against retaliation, this new program could open the door to a raft of new abuses. China must engage in thorough police reform as part of any long term solution to its dysfunctional petitioning system.
There is no question that the petitioning system, a uniquely Chinese cultural-legal institution, needs some fixing. Each year, tens of thousands of farmers and others throng Beijing in the hope that some national official will intercede in their local cases. Many are victims of official corruption, forced resettlement, and police brutality. These “petitioners,” are exercising an ancient Chinese right, protected in national law, that allows anyone to submit a complaint to the government.
Many petitioners have tried their local courts first and failed to find justice. Petitioning in Beijing is the court of last resort. However, few find satisfaction there either. Many spend their life savings while waiting for an official reply to their appeals, and wind up encamped in a shantytown of Dickensian squalor known as the “petitioners’ village” where they live on scraps scavenged from the streets. Though the labyrinthine system fails many, there are few other options under China’s weak legal system, and so the numbers of petitioners continues to grow. In the first quarter of 2005, the State Council Petitions Bureau in Beijing reported an increase of more than 90% in the numbers of letters and visits compared to the same period last year.
However, petitioners complaining in Beijing can make provincial authorities look bad to their supervisors in the capital. Thus, provincial governments send plainclothes police and thugs to Beijing, where they lie in wait for petitioners from their home province. When they find petitioners, these officers — known as “retrievers” — often beat or threaten them. Sometimes, they bundle petitioners into cars and take them back home. Some are released there, while others are thrown into detention without trial.
One man we met from Henan province in central China had been petitioning for decades and been “retrieved” many times. His saga began when a local official hired thugs to kill his father over a land claim. Finding no justice in Henan, he petitioned in Beijing. There he was grabbed by provincial “retrievers” who permanently crippled his two middle fingers, and then took him to a detention center in Henan — in fact an unused army barracks. They kept him there to cook for them for a while, but after a blizzard shut down the unheated facility, the police told him he was free to go. He immediately returned to Beijing to petition, and said he had been seized in the same way and beaten multiple times. He no longer dares to leave the petitioners’ village.
His tale was extreme, but not unusual. Petitioners are often imprisoned in local detention centers for exercising their legally-guaranteed right to petition. One petitioner in her sixties told us that when she demanded to know why she was being imprisoned, “The officers said, `You’ve done nothing illegal. This is to stop you from petitioning.'”
Ironically, and tragically, many of the petitioners thus mistreated are petitioning over police abuse in the first place. We interviewed several parents who began petitioning after sons died in police custody.
It is commendable that the Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang, is ready to take action on the petitioning problem. Mr. Zhou recently announced that he would require police chief to meet with petitioners from their region. Almost immediately, he reported high success rates in resolving petitioners’ cases. But in the context of widespread police abuse, this should give pause for thought. Exactly what does Minister Zhou mean by “resolved”? How many cases have been resolved by leaving petitioners battered in jail cells or working 18-hour days in reeducation-through-labor camps?
Mr. Zhou should tell China and the world exactly what concrete steps his ministry will take to investigate and hold officials and police accountable for retaliation against petitioners. Then the whole police force should be retrained, each last officer.
Such measures are critical if there is ever to be an end to the petitioning problem. Some petitioners told our research team that they have nothing left to lose. Anything less than thorough reform will leave Beijing without a dam against a swelling river of battered, traumatized, and angry rural petitioners.

Ms. Davis is a New York-based writer and author of “Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China’s Southwest Borders” (Columbia University Press, 2005).

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