Asia-Pacific / China

Demanding Justice: China’s Broken Petitioning System

On July 20, 2013, wheelchair-bound Ji Zhongxing, 34, rolled into Terminal 3 of Beijing’s Capital Airport and detonated a homemade bomb. In the amateur online videos that went viral immediately following the incident, Mr. Ji is gesturing frantically, then there is a loud bang and the arrivals entry hall fills with thick black smoke. No one was hurt, except Mr. Ji himself, who lost a hand. Before setting off the bomb, Mr. Ji was distributing pamphlets in an attempt to publicize the incident that left him partially paralyzed. When airport security stopped his efforts, Mr. Ji set off the bomb in a last-ditch plea for attention.

The incident that left Mr. Ji confined to a wheelchair took place in 2005. At that time, Mr. Ji was working in the southern city Dongguan as a motorcycle taxi driver. Ji claims that after Dongguan police discovered him operating an unregistered taxi, they brutally assaulted him, leaving him paralyzed and unable to work. For the past eight years, Ji has been seeking compensation and justice through China’s only channel for civil justice–the infamous petitioning system. According to the Dongguan government, Ji had already sued twice, but had lost due to lack of evidence. Despite the local public security bureau’s “humanitarian” payment of 100,000 RMB (USD $16,280) in 2009, he continued to petition. Most recently, Ji filed a complaint through the website of the National Bureau of Letters and Calls, the primary office responsible for processing petitions in Beijing.

Ji’s desperate actions were a response to China’s flawed, ineffective, and discriminatory petitioning system. Rather than being denounced as a terrorist, Ji was cast as a victim and received an unprecedented outpouring of support and sympathy from China’s active netizens.

“What a kindhearted man! Who else in this country can stand up and say ‘I’m more righteous than he is’!” Zhao Xiao, professor at University of Science and Technology in Beijing, posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque micro-blogging site. In just two days, the post had been forwarded more than 50,000 times.

These posts quickly swerved into political commentary, with Luo Changping, an influential blogger, characterizing Ji’s situation as a “desperate endless loop.” Luo goes on to post that: “In the name of maintaining stability, the power of the police is extended indefinitely. The law is not independent. There’s no solution.”

In her article “Mobilizing the Law in China,” Mary Gallagher of the University of Michigan discusses the development of the “people’s legal consciousness” in relation to the sharp rise in petitioning, protests and demonstrations. Gallagher argues that citizens’ expectations about the law and legal processes are shaped by a government-run media campaign that broadcasts good news and happy endings over more realistic outcomes. This surge in popular protest, she writes, forms a “bottom-up pressure to build the rule of law and to improve it” and “…is one more indication that legal consciousness in China is developing, moving not high to low but from naïve to critical, from a vague sense of rights to a detailed list of grievances.”

It is just this rise in awareness, from naïve to critical, that is pushing people like Ji to take extreme actions. And he is not alone–in the last few months, frustrated and desperate petitioners have made international headlines with alarming frequency. In June, Chen Shuizong, set fire to a bus in the Southeastern city of Xiamen, killing himself and 47 others. Without a stable job, Chen and his family relied heavily on government benefits for low-income households. After Chen was deemed ineligible to continue receiving assistance, he tirelessly petitioned to renew his access to these benefits. At wits end, he resorted to an act of stunning and conspicuous violence. Similar to Ji, this incident also provoked a social media outburst, with some netizens condemning his actions, but many others exhibiting sympathy and naming Chen a martyr.

In yet another macabre event that occurred in August, 21 petitioners from Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province attempted a group suicide at Beijing’s West Railway Station. These petitioners, all wearing white t-shirts with the characters for “Harbin Railway Bureau” printed on them in black, drank significant amounts of pesticides in protest of a broken promise. Allegedly, the Harbin Railway Bureau guaranteed this group of employees jobs for their children if they enlisted in the Army first. The Bureau later failed to acknowledge this agreement, even after repeated petitioning. The group of railway workers that attempted suicide were transported to the hospital, and then transferred to a Beijing detention center upon their release.

While these high-profile cases may sound transformative to American readers who hear about them in newspapers, my experience walking the streets of Beijing reflected little of the tumult depicted. The Communist Party is certainly witnessing a period of rapid social change that is producing many social issues–the widening gap between the rich and poor, environmental degradation and unchecked air and water pollution, rampant corruption in government, a slowing economy–but the central government’s responsive authoritarian tactics seem to be keeping a handle on its 1.35 billion constituents.

One night in December 2012, I shared a simple meal with a petitioner in a park in Beijing’s Haidian district. I had picked up dinner–fried noodles, a couple steamed pork buns, and tofu in peanut sauce and sesame oil–from street vendors outside the West Gate of the Central Minorities University and was taking a circuitous route back to my dorm. It was a clear night, the weather unseasonably warm, so I stopped at a park and sat on a bench to enjoy my meal. Soon after I sat down, I was approached by a young man in a tattered Mao jacket, asking me for money. Instead, I gave him the pork buns, explaining that I didn’t have any more money on me. Surprised that I could speak Mandarin, he asked where I was from, and we began talking.

My new friend, Mr. Zhang, was a 27-year-old from Dunhuang in Western China’s Gansu Province. Zhang had come to Beijing four years ago to find work and send money back to his family. All had gone according to plan–he was working long hours at a factory, lived in a small apartment with three other workers, and was able to send money back to Dunhuang once a month. Then, last year, Zhang had an accident at work that crippled his right hand. His employers gave him a paltry compensation payment that barely covered medical expenses, and then deemed him unfit to continue working at the factory. Zhang has since been drifting in and out of homelessness, occasionally able to find temporary employment doing menial jobs such as trash collection and handing out advertisements for restaurants.

Zhang had filed a petition, but was not holding out much hope for a resolution. He chalked his situation up to yuanfen, a Chinese concept of fate, and said that he had to do the best with what he had now. He went on to say that most people don’t even bother petitioning because the process is simply more trouble than it’s worth. Zhang seemed resigned, but not bitter as he thanked me for the pork buns and wandered off into the Beijing night.

In concept, the Bureau of Letters and Visits, colloquially known as Xinfang, which fields these petitions is a compassionate institution–it provides citizens with a ladder up the village, township, county, prefectural, provincial, and finally central governments. The idea is thousands of years old, originating when people with grievances would throw themselves in front of sedan chairs to get the attention of the authorities. Today however, the process has devolved into an opaque and corrupt practice. Many local governments famously operate “black jails,” which are extralegal detention centers formed by police for the purpose of intercepting and detaining petitioners without trial. In order to prevent people from their township or county from reaching the higher levels of government, so-called “interceptors” or “black guards” will abduct petitioners, often times beating them before sending them home.

While Zhang’s quiet forbearance may represent the norm, extreme responses to failed petition efforts are becoming more frequent, and China’s age-old petitioning system is facing more criticism than ever. With the proliferation of online forums and social media networks, these grassroots debates have become widely politicized and opened up for popular discussion. As these calls for transparency, equality, and reform grow louder, the Chinese government and CCP will be forced to respond–or risk facing serious social dissent in the not so distant future. “