Protesters tried to storm their way into one of China's top universities Friday to confront a professor who said nearly all petitioners — people who come to Beijing to ask the central government for help — are mentally ill and should be put away.
Law professor Sun Dongdong's comments, published in a March issue of China Newsweek magazine, triggered outrage among petitioners who routinely flock to Beijing by the thousands to air complaints after their local governments ignore them.
About 40 people gathered outside the elite Peking University gates Friday morning, scattering leaflets and shouting for the professor to come out to talk to them. They tried to pass through the gates, but dozens of security forces stopped them. They were then put into buses and taken away, capping more than a week of demonstrations outside the university.
The situation has drawn fresh attention to the plight of petitioners — mostly from China's vast and poor countryside — who have come to symbolize the country's failure to build a justice system that ordinary Chinese consider fair.
Petitioners and their supporters worry that the comments by Sun — whom state media says is involved in drafting China's first mental health law — will be used to lend a professional gloss to the practice of placing petitioners in mental institutions.
"There's very good reason behind these worries," said activist lawyer Li Heping, who has taken on many rights cases.
"Nowadays, there is an overflow of cases involving petitioners being forced into mental hospitals," he said. "After being labeled as a mental health patient, one loses all rights."
Late last year, the state-run Beijing News newspaper reported on petitioners placed in mental institutions in eastern Shandong province, with some forced to take psychiatric drugs and told they would not be released until they signed pledges to drop their complaints.
Sun is also head of Peking University's forensics department, which helps court authorities evaluate the mental health of defendants.
He quickly issued a public apology, saying he was only talking about the petitioners he has seen himself as a mental health professional. His critics have dismissed the apology as insincere, and many are demanding he be fired. His department said he was not available for an interview Friday.
China's petition system has its roots in its imperial past, when people appealed to the emperor. It survived after the Communists took power with "letters and visits" offices at every level of government to handle grievances. The number of people flooding into the capital in recent years has ballooned, as awareness of legal rights and their infringement by local officials has grown.
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.
Local officials, fearing the grievances will reflect badly on them, have resorted to various methods outside of the law to stop them. Those include sending thugs or police that place them in illegal detention centers in Beijing or force them to return home.
Newspaper criticizes him
The Beijing News decried Sun's comments in an editorial Wednesday, saying in many cases, petitioners' initial appeals are reasonable but because they are not dealt with they have no choice but to persist and do what they can to draw authorities' attention.
It said some appear sick because they are overwhelmed and depressed, and called for the government to help them.
"Some petitioners are persistent and have strong character, but very few of them have mental problems in the medical sense. The comment of the professor is very irresponsible," said Xu Zhiyong, an outspoken lawyer who has drawn public attention to the petitioners' plight, adding that it is criminal for the government to put them in mental institutions.
More than 200 people protested outside Peking University on Wednesday and at least 50 were taken away by police, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing a senior university official, Miao Jinxiang.