Nation, Page 11,
May 9, 2011
China's petition system, which dates back 3,000 years, is the channel through which citizens can complain about corrupt or negligent oficials. To record their complaints, citizens need to visit one of the Offices of Letters and Calls that are attached to departments at every level of government. If their complaints are ignored, they can appeal directly to Beijing.
Regional officials, fearing for their careers, discourage their own workers and peasants from petitioning in the capital. Their methods of coercion are sometimes brutal. This story follows two regional policeman who have been deployed to intercept petitioners in Beijing. They describe their broken promises and despair for the system.
After supper, Zhang Xiao turned on his computer to resume his online course Building Values for the Communist Party of China with a lecture by Xue Xinliang, a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee. At that moment, Wu Gang came in to ask for a cigarette. He lit it with a lighter on the table, took a puff, and then said, “They’re coming back, 20 of them this time.”
“They” are petitioners from Hubei Province who have flocked to the capital to complain about local officials who they say have seized their land unfairly.
After the State Council issued the Petition Regulations on Oct. 28th, 1995, regional governments set up petition offices at all levels to accept formal complaints. Since then, petitioners whose complaints are ignored by local officials have been coming to Beijing to get justice. In response, a group of people has emerged known as “interceptors”. Local governments deploy these people to intercept petitioners before they can file complaints to more senior departments. Sometimes they use persuasion, sometimes coercion.
This is the job of Zhang and Wu.
The Cost of Interception
Before Zhang was assigned to Beijing in 2008, he was a police chief for a city of Hubei Province. Now he works with that region’s liaison office in Beijing, and is responsible for getting petitioners to go home.
“The petitioners are all simmering with rage,” said Zhang, who has now been ‘maintaining social stability’ for three years.
Wu was sent to Beijing by a county police office in Hubei, has been in the city for a year longer than Zhang. In that time, he has come to inhabit a completely different sphere - the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Central Committee of the CPC, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Ministry of Health.
“Sometimes, I drive to those places without thinking,” Zhang Xiao said. “I’ve got used to keeping my cellphone fully charged that I’m always prepared to rush to train stations or airports. You never know when petitioners will turn up in Beijing.”
According to officials at the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the number of petitioners from across the country during the “two sessions” in 2011 was much higher than usual, peaking at 20,000 in one day. Henan, Shandong and the Northeast had most petitioners.
In order to reduce the number of petitioners taking their grievances to Beijing, the Deputy Minister for Public Security, Yang Huanning, ordered cities to improve local processing of complaints.
Zhang’s city employed more than 50 people to intercept petitioners. Staff expenses alone reached as much as 200,000 yuan over the two week period.
As for petitioners’ expenses; they were often covered by local governments - 10 yuan for a lunch box and around 80 yuan a night for a basement room. If they agreed to return home from Beijing, they were offered chartered buses or group-discounts on railway tickets. As an incentive to abandon their complaints, local governments would sometimes even offer to compensate them for time that they had spent bringing their complaint to Beijing.
With the rise of the Internet, petitioners have also started to seek justice online, but most of these applications fail.
Even so, Zhang Xiao’s unit has recruited more staff for an “internet office”. Their duty is to monitor bulletin boards online and micro blogs as well as posting their comments on these forums in order to cast their employers in a more positive light.
“We’re always being demonized,” Wu said.
Of all the petitioners that he’s come across over the last three years, one old man stands out for Zhang. The old man has been petitioning for 20 years and his only request is a few tens of thousands of yuan as compensation for a medical accident. The hospital ignored him and the local government just dithered.
“In truth, it’s just tens of thousands yuan, peanuts for the local authority and the hospital, but they just turn a blind eye,” said Zhang.
Local security regulations dictate that petitioners who have lodged “illegitimate” complaints more than three times should be detained for one to two weeks as a punishment for harming their region’s reputation.
Zhang said that many petitioners are persuaded to renounce their complaints on their first visit to Beijing, but are then arrested as soon as they get home, which gives them a new determination to make their grievances heard in Beijing.
“I promised them that they wouldn’t be detained if they went home...However, they were arrested the moment they got back,” Zhang said regretfully. The situation is often beyond his control - local officials believe that petitioners blacken their reputation and damage their career prospects.
Another difficulty facing interceptors is that new local officials regularly refuse to clear up the mess left by their predecessors. Zhang has helped reached settlements with petitioners on behalf of his home region, only to see the government there renege on those agreements when new officials are appointed. As a result, men like Zhang lose petitioners’ respect.
Throughout Wu’s 20-year career maintaining social stability, he says that petitioners have had two gripes: state-owned enterprise reform and land seizure. They come from various industries electricity, tobacco, water, and even the army, but they all been deprived of the livelihood.
Wu Gang says only a small fraction of petitioners are out to cause problems.
Daily Life in Beijing
“An interceptor’s job is more stressful and demanding than investigating crimes,” Zhang said. He has been rewarded every year for his work as an “excellent petition officer,” but he isn’t content simply keeping peace in Beijing. If he phone doesn’t ring all day, he starts to fiddle with it nervously wondering whether it’s broken.
Zhang can scarcely remember having a free weekend over the last three years. He’s a heavy chain smoker, consuming a couple of packets a day and his life outside work consists of listening to required lectures from the party and sleeping. In the corner of his room, there’s a dusty automatic mahjong machine. Occasionally, when he feels stressed, he will invite Wu and others to play.
He goes home twice a year, but within a couple of days he has to rush back to Beijing since “they” are back. Sometimes, he tries to arrange meetings in his home city so that he can to stay a few more days with his wife and parents.
Wu lives in a two bedroom flat with a monthly rent of 3,600 yuan per month, which is paid by his office. His monthly salary is a little more than 3,000 yuan, the same as his peers earn back home. He also gets a daily allowance of 50 yuan, with an additional 30 yuan for incidental expenses.
Wu and Zhang sometimes get together for a drink - their conversation seldom strays from petitioners and their causes. They say that although the central government set up the petition system, it’s rarely a way of redressing injustices. As far as they know, over the past four years, not a single local official has been held to account as a result of a petition. “Unless the government improves the system and finds an effective way of holding officials to account, the problem will remain and so will the petitioners. It will still be expensive to intercept them and of course we still have to stay here, separate from our families,” Wu said.
Human Rights Watch: An Alleyway in Hell
Financial Times: Punished supplicants, March 2009
This article was edited by Will Bland.