Image: Damaged restaurant in Beijing
Andy Wong  /  AP
A table bearing the word "injustice" lies outside a damaged restaurant, owned by Jiang Yingjie in Beijing. Jiang claimed to have been attacked by police trying to evict him from his restaurant. Dissidents and petitioners complain that police are overly harsh and sometimes violent.
updated 3/11/2009 7:58:58 PM ET 2009-03-11T23:58:58

White leaflets flutter to the street in downtown Beijing, each one a snapshot of someone's misery: a shuttered factory, a sick child, a real estate swindle.

The petitions — testimonies of public grievances — are presented to the Chinese government in a centuries-old ritual along with hope that back wages will be paid, the child will be treated or a corrupt official will be punished.

But the appeals rarely work, and mounting frustration among petitioners in Beijing is turning into desperation. Petitioners are staging riskier protests, like unfurling banners, or worse. At least two have cut themselves with sharp objects in public. Some have set themselves on fire.

"The petition offices often lie to us," said Li Li, who has been trying to clear her husband's name for two years on what she says were trumped up embezzlement charges. "They treat us like footballs, kicking us from department to department, so we don't trust them anymore. We don't want to go through official channels."

On a recent weekday afternoon, Li Li and a small band of other petitioners flung their grievances into the sky and quickly melted into the crowd of a downtown shopping street before they could be arrested.

Police stopped traffic to gather the sheaves of paper, then stuffed them into a garbage can.

The practice of Chinese traveling to Beijing to ask the central government for redress dates to the days when people could petition the emperor.

These days, the legions of petitioners have come to symbolize China's failure to build a justice system that ordinary Chinese consider fair. Local governments and courts ignore problems or are corrupt, while the press is muzzled by censorship.

Millions of letters, visits
The government says it receives 3 million to 4 million letters and visits from petitioners each year, but rights groups put the figure in the tens of millions.

Efforts to submit grievances to the main petition office in Beijing typically peak in March when the legislature meets because petitioners believe the claims will get more attention.

Instead, the occasion has become high season for brutal reprisals.

Petitioners are routinely chased by hostile provincial-level officials or thugs-for-hire who round them up before they can reach the central government. Officials back home fear the complaints may cost them a promotion or a job or trigger investigations.

These "interceptors" sometimes detain petitioners in hotels or unofficial "black jails" until they can be sent home.

A gated compound of nondescript concrete buildings in northeast Beijing is where Li Chunxia says she was detained several times while fighting a court ruling that made her garment factory state property after a business dispute. She described meager meals of plain flour buns and said she saw guards there beat other detainees.

'Government's sacrificial lambs'
"We are the government's sacrificial lambs," said Li, sitting on a bed in a cheap, dorm-style hotel popular with petitioners. "There is a part of society that has gotten rich, but it's been at our expense. You could say their way to prosperity was paved with people like us."

Li Chunxia is six months pregnant but has no job, health care or pension. In the afternoon, she and other petitioners sorted through restaurant garbage looking for salvageable vegetables to cook for dinner.

For the past three years, she has made repeated trips to Beijing from her home in China's central Henan province and, like many petitioners, has appealed to dozens of agencies with no result.

"My factory is gone. I owe money to the bank. I have no choice but to keep petitioning," she said.

On Sunday, Li Chunxia, Li Li and a third woman again tried to scatter their leaflets — this time on Tiananmen Square. They were detained by police and likely returned to their home provinces. Repeated calls to their mobile phones went unanswered.

There was no response to faxes and calls made to the National Office of Letters and Visits asking how many petitioners were in the capital this month, what methods they were using to petition and how they were being handled.

Some academics say the entire system should be abolished because it has prevented more effective alternatives from evolving. Even Premier Wen Jiabao says the system needs to work better.

Premier vows to improve system
He vowed last week to improve the handling of grievances and insisted leading officers must deal with public complaints and petitions.

While Beijing dickers over details, ordinary people are mobilizing, increasingly aware of their rights and able to link up via the Internet and mobile phones.

Wang Songlian, a Hong Kong-based researcher with the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said petitioners today share experiences and cooperate to evade or resist interceptors. Dispirited when their appeals go unheard, some resort to hurting themselves in a bid for media attention, Wang said.

"They have been intercepted and put in black jails multiple times. They are in an environment where it's easy for them to turn to extremes," said Wang, whose group tracks petitioner abuse.

Last month, a couple from the western region of Xinjiang set themselves and their son on fire near Tiananmen Square after their home was razed for new construction and they got no compensation.

On Monday, longtime petitioner Jiang Yingjie was hospitalized in Beijing, his neck thickly bandaged. His wife said police stabbed him in the neck with a glass bottle when he refused to leave the restaurant he has tried to save from demolition. Beijing's Public Security Bureau said the injury was self-inflicted.

Zhou Li, an activist who tracks petitioner abuse — using a mobile phone and an overseas Skype account while under house arrest in a tiny Beijing apartment — cited three reports of petitioners who tried to maim or kill themselves in public last week.'

Witnesses told Zhou that a man stabbed himself in front of the Beijing city government office, a man set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square and six elderly petitioners from Fujian province drank pesticide. The accounts could not be confirmed.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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