By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
BEIJING -- A dusty black van sits on the street outside the State Bureau for Letters and Visits. The driver puffs on a cigarette, his knit shirt pulled up to expose his belly to the breeze. His license plate shows he's from Liaoning province, more than 200 miles to the northeast. Vans like his are a common sight on this street, their drivers under orders to look for people from the home province and haul them back before they make too much trouble in the capital city on the eve of the Olympics.
In centuries past, Chinese villagers who believed they were victims of injustice often traveled to the capital to appeal to the emperor. Today, that custom survives, usually as a hard-sleeper train trip to Beijing to petition Communist Party leaders at an office like this one.
Two weekends ago, provincial party officials were told in a conference call to solve problems at home and stop the flow of petitioners into the city, lest they disrupt the harmonious atmosphere the government is attempting to maintain in preparation for the Olympic Games. The crackdown is part of a broad effort to squelch any signs of conflict. The campaign includes the stepped-up surveillance and detention of dissidents, and the denial of visas for thousands of foreigners who might be troublemakers.
"All signs point to a stability-ahead-of-all-else policy," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a senior researcher in Hong Kong for the Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for human rights. "Just to be sure nothing bad happens, a lot of good things may not happen at the same time."
Although estimates are that fewer than one in 500 petitioners ever resolve their cases, that has never stopped people from lining up in front of Beijing's petition offices, clutching satchels or plastic shopping bags filled with documents to argue their case.
Some say they realize their quest is probably hopeless, but they have nowhere else to turn because back home, every avenue of appeal, including the courts, is controlled by local party officials. Although the petition offices here are also run by the party, at least they are on the national level. Now, even this safety valve is being shut.
With few lawful ways to press a grievance, repressed anger can slide to violence. In the same week that word went out to block petitioners, three unrelated incidents of mayhem erupted over perceived injustices.
An estimated 30,000 people rioted two weekends ago in Weng'an county in southwest China's Guizhou province, with students torching police cars and attacking government offices to protest authorities' handling of the death of a teenage girl.
In Shanghai, a man apparently angry over his interrogation concerning a theft went on a stabbing spree that left six police officers dead and four officers wounded. And in central China's Hunan province, a man incensed over the forced demolition of his building exploded two gas canisters in front of a local government complex, injuring 12 people.
The incidents prompted some official soul-searching about the consequences of the state ignoring popular anger.
"Why were the people of Weng'an so angry as to set fire to government buildings? How could a citizen turn so violent after a single regular police interrogation? Does the removal of an illegal structure have to end up in hatred?" asked an editorial in Friday's China Daily, the state-controlled English-language newspaper. "The three tragic episodes reveal a less-than-harmonious relationship between the general public and those who are supposed to be at their service."
The party's response in the Weng'an case was twofold: arrest people involved in the riot and blame local officials for letting long-rising tensions in the county get out of hand. By Friday, the county's party secretary, its top magistrate and two police chiefs had all been fired.
"This incident may appear to be random, but in fact it was inevitable," Shi Zongyuan, Guizhou's Communist Party secretary, told reporters. He said officials had lost the citizens' confidence because they had used "rude and roughshod solutions" to handle residents' anger over mining development, the relocation of families to make way for a reservoir and demolition of homes for public projects. So when officials, after investigating for less than 24 hours, announced that teenager Li Shufen had drowned herself, few believed them.
Li's family feared police were covering up that she had been raped and murdered by two men whose families were said to be connected to the public security bureau. Her uncle, after pressing local officials to investigate further, was beaten so badly by thugs that he had to be hospitalized.
Thousands of citizens took to the streets for protests that turned violent. On the Internet, popular discussion boards were flooded with posts from people supporting the family against the local government. Many posts were deleted soon after they appeared, ostensibly under orders from government censors, but Web users began using euphemisms and other tricks to escape the filters.
After three autopsies and several meetings between officials and the family, Li's parents agreed to take a government compensation payment, allowed the girl's body to be buried and accepted the official ruling of suicide by drowning.
The government's handling of the case reinforced the widespread belief that local officials can be corrupt or inept, and that the only hope for the aggrieved is to capture the attention of national leaders. At the same time, though, national officials have told provincial leaders to stop people from petitioning Beijing for help. That order helps reinforce the local leaders' longstanding incentive to smother dissent; if too many petitioners make their causes known in Beijing, that often hurts the local officials' chances of being promoted.
In Shijiazhuang City, near Beijing in Hebei province, local officials issued a "Six Combats" manifesto last week, trumpeting the steps they were taking to ensure social stability during the Games. In addition to measures like improving traffic and controlling fire hazards, it listed "Assault on Petitions" as one of its objectives for achieving "sweeping victory on Olympic security work."
Few Chinese are surprised that the government emphasizes clamping down on protest. "The government only knows this method and they are only good at this method to deal with dissent," said Li Datong, an editor who was fired for publishing a historical analysis that did not follow approved party lines.
Zhang Zuhua, a dissident scholar who has pushed for political reform, said suppression "may control the situation temporarily, but it's not the way to solve the problem fundamentally." The answer, Zhang said, is to "constantly build a democratic and legal system and let the people have an outlet for the grievances."
With Beijing petitions officially discouraged, just a few dozen people were seen at two different petition offices in the city one morning last week. Two police vans, one with plates from Jiangsu province and the other from Liaoning, were parked nearby and were later observed driving away with several passengers. Two men, lounging in chairs on the sidewalk, said they were from Shanghai and had come to watch the petitioners.
"They've already caught me twice and sent me home," said one petitioner who refused to give her name or discuss her case. "They told me if they catch me one more time, they will take me to a mental hospital."
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.