Peasants come to Beijing to fight endless battles

Hundreds come from afar to petition officials over old grievances that often go unresolved.

Published March 18, 2007

BEIJING - On a recent Sunday night in an old neighborhood near the South Railway Station, not far from several government departments, a string of shacks and tents shielded hundreds of peasants who had recently arrived in the capital to see the authorities.

In theory, it was a day of rest, since the receiving halls of the Supreme Court and other government buildings were closed. But the peasants, who had traveled here from across China, were just beginning to prepare for the week. They had come to petition authorities over grievances in their hometowns - in some cases alleging official abuses that went back 30 years.

Wei Shougang, 61, of Shandong province was rewriting an appeal for compensation on behalf of his father, a former soldier who was forced by illness to retire early and who died in poverty.

Yuan Jitang, 57, also of Shandong, was stuffing envelopes with letters and grisly photographs showing his son's corpse - in hopes that the boy's murderer would receive the death penalty, rather than the prison sentence that had been meted out.

Zhu Xinshi, 55, of Henan province was making himself dinner from some cooked vegetables that he had found in the trash and a pack of instant noodles, girding himself for a continuing fight against a man who received $33,000 on a life insurance policy taken out on Zhu's son.

The path the three men were on has been well tread. It is common for villagers to seek recourse with authorities in Beijing, and just as common for them to be sent packing. They are routinely stopped by police from their home provinces who come to Beijing's government plazas, listen for accents like their own and then round up the locals, lest villagers speak ill of officials back home and the number of complaints in Beijing rises.

On this evening, the men were speaking in loud whispers in Wei's tiny room, which had three beds, filthy curtains, two other tenants and no heat. They smoked tobacco leaf because a week's supply costs only 13 cents. They collected plastic bottles for recycling, hoping the money they earned would cover the expenses of their trip.

Each man had a different story; none sounded promising.

"I've never really heard of any successful cases, actually," said Li Yuhai, an activist from Anhui province who rents the room from a landlord for $130 a month and in turn collects somewhat irregular rent from people such as Wei and his roommates.

Any cases apart from his own, that is. Li was illegally detained in 1995 for 10 months after complaining about the heavy tax burden on farmers. After his release, he sued the police. China had just passed a compensation law, and he was given $395.

"Because the Chinese government is trying to improve its legal system, step by step, this gives people hope," said Li, who was also briefly detained for allegedly working with Human Rights Watch, which he denied to authorities. "You won't see petitioner villages like this in other cities. You can say this idea of protecting their rights explains the hope these people have."

The men in Wei's room reminded one another to keep their voices down. They checked to see whether security guards were nearby. A few hundred yards away were cigarette stores, tailor shops and restaurants that advertised dishes for the equivalent of less than a dollar. Another sign offered letter-writing services for illiterate petitioners.

At 8:30 p.m., Wei lifted his mattress to look for more paperwork. Because he is afraid of being arrested - it's happened to him before - he no longer rises at 3 a.m. each day to join the hundreds of other petitioners who try to get a number that allows their petitions to be heard. Now he lines up only several times a week.

"They have categorized me as an unreasonable petitioner whose complaint is invalid," Wei said. "A year ago, I smashed the sign in front of the National Petition Administration, and because of that, I was sent to a labor camp for a year." Actually, he has been sent to labor camps twice.

"Now I'm ashamed to go back home because it will be the talk of my neighbors," he said.

"I've lived a hard life all my life, and my mother suffered more than me. I've got to find justice, or people will look down on me forever," he explained.

At 9:30 p.m., a figure in one of the beds stirred. Xu Dalu, 52, who had been napping after writing all day, slowly sat up and put on his glasses, a second sweater and then a vest. He took out from the bed a sheaf of papers and methodically shuffled them. Officials sometimes tell petitioners what to add or delete from their complaints; the farmers then share notes.

Xu's brother was a Korean War veteran who was later labeled a political antirevolutionary and killed.

"The only reason was because he spoke the truth," Xu said, peering over his glasses. "In 1963 there was a famine, and he said some people starved to death. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and in 1969 he was executed. I began to petition in 1978, after the Cultural Revolution."

Xu persists because he got a written response from China's Supreme Court in 1981, saying officials were looking into the matter and would resolve the issue. "But this ball has been kicked from one person to another and never solved," he said.

By 11:30 p.m., everyone in Wei's room was asleep. It was too cold, so no one washed up. In the morning, there would be work to do.