By World News Bureau
Here yesterday, gone today. The ramshackle “petitioners’ village” near Beijing’s South Station where thousands of Chinese lived has been demolished and there is no sign that such a place ever existed on ground. The importance of this village was that it was the last stop for ‘hopeless’ Chinese people to be paste their petition on the walls of Beijing if nothing else worked.
The same applies to justice which is not only delayed but denied in China.
On paper the Chinese governance mechanism allows redressal of complaints against infringement of rights, bureaucratic redtapism, corruption and police torture. The Chinese legal system dates back to the imperial period when commoners were allowed to submit memorials to the emperor about their complaints. To seek justice petitioners often traveled to Beijing and at times waited outside the gates of the emperor’s palace on their knees, or tried to intercept imperial processions, to present their appeals.
Under the Chinese criminal justice system commoners had a right to report official misconduct or appeal against judicial or administrative decisions to higher levels of government. In the ancient past petitioners who were not satisfied could go higher up directly to the emperor by either kneeling before the palace gate
The problems became acute when the number of appellants increased rapidly, “swamping the ability of imperial institutions to handle” the complaints. This gave rise to a practice where local officials tried to suppress the complaint and the complainant. As a result the petitions dragged for many years without resolution.
As per the official procedure petition offices must review a complaint in writing or in person within fifteen days, or refer it to be handled by the relevant agency. The agency concerned thereafter must also issue a decision within a fixed period of time – altogether within 60 days after recording the statements and investigation. But this petitioning system has totally collapsed due to growing number of petition- many more than the system can handle.
As a result some petitions are transferred repeatedly bounced around like a tennis ball from one department to another to bypass responsibility – this in turn leads to endless delays.
According to a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences an average petitioner is required to visit atleast 6-18 different establishments like National Bureau of Letters and Visits, Public Security Bureau, State Council, Supreme Court, Communist Party Central Disciplinary Commission, or the Civil Administration Bureau. Many of these government offices operate from dirty room without any tables or chairs and the petitioners have to present complaints have to line up in front of a small window to submit their petitions. Most of these offices were always crowded, and the petitioners had to wait outside the buildings for a long time. So a number of them especially those from other provinces brought their children and relatives to stand in queue on their behalf turn-by-turn
In a number of cases petitioners were seen carrying placards or wearing white shirts with painted narratives of their case. Many of them came with multiple copies of their written statements, and evidence like past correspondence, photographs, and testimony by witnesses; as well as previous court decisions and a brief summary of their case. Some of them have recounted their stories to so many times that they had the relevant dates and facts on their fingertips.
According to a study conducted by the Human Rights Watch, a long stint of time nearly half the petitioners received a letter from a national office directing a subordinate office to take care of the cases. Most of them received threats by local goons to withdraw the case or face dire consequences.
For non-Chinese observers the China’s petitioning system is nothing less than an unsolved mystery in which a large number of petitioners spend most part of their lives—both time and effort to seek justice and maintain their dignity.
Many long-term petitioners particularly from the rural areas have no other options. They do have any education or understand anything about the legal system except the fact that they can petition. Strangely many of them have a deep-rooted faith in the Communist Party, and believe that they would get a fair hearing. Some of them have spent so much of their own and their families’ savings that to return home without success is an intolerable humiliation, more painful even than a life spent living off the scraps in Beijing.
They say, ‘if you do this again, we’ll reeducate you again.’ But how can I not complain? I’ll stop petitioning when I die, but I’m not dead yet said a resolute petitioner.
Many others like him stage ‘dharna’ (sit-in) in front of government offices in Beijing’s streets where China’s elite rulers live and work or try to push their petitions into their limousines. Thousands of others throng in front of national petitions offices, holding signs that describe their cases. Their numbers swell during major political conventions. Many of them have minimal education or resources, often come to Beijing fleeing local violence and seeking the venue of last resort.