John Simpson

The office of last resort

An encounter with China’s petitioners

The office of last resort
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There is no mistaking the place. It isn’t just the crowd of men and women sitting on the steps of the small official building; it’s the way they look as individuals. Once you’ve come across a group of petitioners in China, you can always spot them again.

They are usually middle-aged or elderly and poor. Their clothes are worn and dusty. They look discouraged, sad, beaten down by life. And yet there’s something else about them — something which says a great deal for the human spirit. They’re defiant. They’ve crossed the intangible barrier which divides the weak of purpose from those who are determined to see their project through, no matter what it costs.

These petitioners have come from all over China to complain about wrongs done to them by officialdom. It’s an ancient tradition: the Tang poet Du Fu, who wrote with an almost journalistic eye in the 8th century ad, mentions it. People could appeal to the Emperor if they had suffered injury, and eventually, perhaps, he would hear the case and dispense justice. Or not. In that sense, as in so much else, nothing much has changed.

The present Chinese leadership took over in 2002 and leaves power in a few months’ time. It has kept Mao’s moon-face on its banknotes, even claiming that the old rogue was the author of China’s present economic development; but it has done two immensely difficult things with remarkable success. First, it has overseen a quadrupling in the size of the economy in a decade, with a resulting increase in the number of dollar billionaires from a lone one, a few years ago, to no fewer than 270 now. Second, at the same time, it has managed to avoid open divisions at the top of the Communist party; not easy given that some members of the leadership aren’t at all happy with the notion of China as a tearaway capitalist economy, and don’t believe for a moment that this was what Mao really intended.

The extraordinary expansion of the economy has been managed without sparking a revolution; so far, at any rate. The Tsar tried a similar dash for growth in imperial Russia a century ago, and Mikhail Gorbachev tried something much more modest in the late 1980s. Both efforts ended in disaster.

In 1991-92 the Chinese leadership conducted exhaustive investigations into why the Soviet Union had collapsed, and they decided that it was basically because intellectuals, lawyers, junior politicians had been allowed to undermine the system by their criticisms (glasnost), at the precise moment when the leaders were opening up the economy (perestroika). As a result, China decided to go for perestroika without the glasnost. That’s been the approach ever since.

And China’s leaders have been cleverer than Mikhail Gorbachev. They have delegated a great many state functions to regional and local authorities around the country. That way, most disasters and abuses, from the bursting of a dam to the torture of a political dissident, are the responsibility of someone other than the party bosses.

The Chinese Communist party itself stays free of blame, and when something goes badly wrong the topmost party leaders descend on the place, look around with bewilderment and sympathy, and promise redress: all on national television. The bad guys are all local. The leadership, like the Emperor of old, keeps its hands clean.

This system of blame avoidance, like so much of modern China’s success, stems from the advice of one man: Zhu Rong-ji, one of the top figures in the 1992-2002 leadership. Zhu is 83, clever, affable to the point of joviality, and, until recently, an enthusiastic user of China’s equivalent of Grecian 2000. Sometimes he’s been in favour, sometimes out; at present he’s back in.

Zhu’s plan involved an institution called guojia xinfang ju: the State Bureau for Letters and Calls. It was founded when the Communists took power in 1949, but since 1993 vastly more people have been using it to complain about the way they or their relatives have been treated. The system can’t cope; which is fine, since it was never really meant to.

If you make the long and expensive trip to Beijing to complain about your wrongs, you run the risk of being beaten up by the police. I’ve seen it happen. Sometimes, petitioners are kidnapped and sent home, so as not to embarrass local officials in the eyes of national government. Others, it’s believed, are held in so-called ‘black jails’.

Yet still the rest turn up at the Petitions Office, day after day, their arms full of documents, brandishing the photographs of people who’ve been tortured, murdered or disappeared. It’s a triumph of the human spirit. It also suggests that China is slowly moving to a modest form of glasnost.

Still, my television team and I know we’ve got to be quick here. The last time I visited a Petitions Office I was grabbed by the police and was lucky to get away with my recordings intact. Realistically, we’ve got about ten minutes to film the crowd and hear their stories, before the police arrive in force. A lone cop is hanging around, talking into his radio, but he won’t interfere without reinforcements.

The crowd gathers round us, shouting, elbowing, beseeching, weeping. No doubt many of the stories are exaggerated or angled, yet it seems unlikely they’re invented. Many of these people have lived in Beijing on almost nothing for two years or more, far from their families, solely in order to make their case to the authorities.

They thrust their petitions at me, begging me to take them away, read them, tell the world about them. If they can’t get justice, maybe they can at least get people to understand what’s happened to them. Later, when I went through the stories with our Chinese producer, I was shocked and fascinated by the light they shed on aspects of life in today’s China. This is not the smiling, contented, proud country as presented every day in the People’s Daily; it’s China as the poet Du Fu would have recognised it, 1,300 years ago.

I thought long and hard before deciding to give the petitioners their real names in the cases which follow.  In the end I felt I should, because that was precisely why they thrust on me the details of what had happened to them. Their hope is that, faced with international publicity, the Chinese authorities will investigate, and will finally give them the justice they have taken such risks to obtain.  No real names, no possibility of justice. Here is a selection of the cases which people handed to me:

Chen Tanzhang, from Fu’an in Fujian province, is now 54. In 1993 his eight-year-old daughter Xiaofang (‘Little Fragrance’) went missing. The next day, the Public Security Bureau told him to come and pick up a body from in its basement car park. It was Xiaofang’s. No one helped him: he had to carry her body to the local mortuary. He claims she was raped and murdered by someone close to the deputy party secretary. This man was tried and sentenced to 18 years, but released after a year. Mr Chen has been petitioning ever since. He has no money, existing only on handouts from friends.

In 2010, without warning, Huang Bengen’s house in Zhejiang province was demolished to make way for a new rail link between Hangzhou and Changsha. His belongings were burnt, his trees chopped down, and he hasn’t received a penny in compensation. When he complained to the local authorities earlier this year, some thugs came round and beat him up. Now he has brought his case to Beijing.

Qin Tianbao from Sichuan province is 76, and had often been awarded the title ‘model worker’. When a group of speculators planned to drain a local reservoir and dig a mine there, Mr Qin complained to the authorities in Beijing about the likely effects on local agriculture. He was beaten up and sent back to Sichuan, where he was thrown into the reservoir. Afterwards, he says, there was an attempt to poison him.

The sister of Jin Quanyu, in a village in Henan province, was sexually assaulted by a neighbour. Soon after, the sister’s husband was murdered by the same man. Mr Jin reported the case to the local public security department. There was no proper investigation, but the police ordered the alleged murderer to pay the costs of the funeral. When Mr Jin started petitioning the authorities in Beijing in 2010 about it, the authorities in Henan sentenced him to a year’s re-education with hard labour. Now, in spite of everything, he’s back in Beijing.

Zuo Ling from Jiangsu province fell foul of a local magnate, who had him and his ­family beaten up repeatedly. Local authorities did nothing to protect them because the big shot involved was too important.

The son of Mrs Han Suhua from Sichuan province was murdered, but although his killer was sentenced to 15 years he was never actually sent to prison. She has come to Beijing several times to complain, and each time she has been physically abused and sent home. In 2008 she was arrested for five days, and forced to sign an undertaking not to petition about the case during the Beijing Olympics.

Jiang Shunsheng, from Hunan province, used to be a village party secretary, until he was accused of corruption. His post was taken by a relative of the country party secretary. Mr Jiang was jailed for a total of 14 months for petitioning Beijing, and while he was in prison several detainees were told to beat him up. His wife was also arrested and abused. Now their 13-year-old son has been refused admission to the local school.

Some of the complaints go back a long way — in the case of Mrs Liu Jimei from Henan province, who’s now 64, to the Cultural Revolution. She came from a land-owning family, and was raped and beaten by local officials. Her son, Weng Shengli, has now taken up the case. Some years ago his newly built house was knocked down by one of the officials who had raped his mother.

My arms full of documents, I got away from the crowd of petitioners before the police could arrive in force. One man had volunteered to be interviewed on camera about his case, so we bundled him into our car, and drove off. Not far away we headed into the safety of a parking lot, and set up the camera.

But in China someone is always watching. Within minutes several plain-clothes policemen arrived and tried to arrest the man. We resisted, and there was a stand-off for an hour and a half until someone higher up the system rang to say we should all be set free at once.

I hailed a taxi and put our man into it, and the police watched him go. For him, it was a light let-off. But the one certain thing is that he’ll be back. The petitioners always are. In spite of everything, petitioning is their one final hope.