Chinese petitioner, after asking White House for help, visited by Chinese police

May 15, 2013

(Screenshot from White House Petitions site) - The White House petition Web site is flooded with formal petitions by Chinese citizens, some on serious issues and others as jokes.

When Chinese Web users flooded the White House's public petitions site last week, one of them, a young woman who works in finance in the city of Chengdu, had a serious request. Her petition, which you can still see online, asked the Obama administration for its help in drawing attention to a planned petrochemical plant near her. "Environmental risk above is so big, need to reassess safety," she wrote.

A few days later, up to 2,000 locals protested the plant – presumably knowing nothing of the White House petition – and were met by thousands of Chengu police officers and state security officials.

Now, police appear to be going after the woman who petitioned the White House, as well. Though the petition has been anonymous, security agents found her at home and asked her to delete the post, apparently unaware that WhiteHouse.gov does not allow users to withdraw petitions. "I am scared," the woman wrote on her social media account.

Petitioning is a sensitive subject in China. According to a centuries-old tradition dating to the feudal era, Chinese citizens unhappy with their local leadership could travel to Beijing to petition the emperor, asking him to intervene. Technically, this is still allowed in China, but it's heavily discouraged. Despite the pressure, though, citizens regularly trek from interior cities and villages to Beijing, where a government office formally accepts petitions, though they rarely if ever do much more than enrage provincial officials.

That sensitivity may help explain the Chengu authorities' reaction to the White House petition.

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Max Fisher · May 15, 2013