Dec 14, 2012 07:23 PM

The Death of a Petitioner



After spending just over 10 years on filing complaints over a court ruling on criminal charges, 55-year-old Zhang Yaodong believed he was close to success when his sister called one morning in November. But the short distance between Beijing and his Henan home turned out to be deadly for the petitioner.

Zhang, who was at a government petitioner's office in Beijing at the time, received a phone call from his older sister who said that the local court had promised to address his petition. He packed his bags and boarded a van back to his hometown in Pingdingshan Prefecture, Henan Province.

An hour later, Zhang's sister received a call from a petitioner in the same van, who told her that her brother had been beaten unconscious. Zhang's sister arrived in Beijing on the second day only to find her brother dead.

Zhang became another victim on the bloody road of petition in China, which is both opaque and sometimes dangerous. The lack of an independent judiciary has made many Chinese citizens believe that a petition to the central government is the only way to get justice. When they register a complaint with officials in Beijing, however, petitioners immediately become enemies of the local authorities, who try hard to return them home in the name of "maintaining social stability."

Zhang's death coincided with the eve of the Communist Party's 18th National Congress. Under political pressure to create a harmonious society for the important congress, officials in Pingdingshan soon reached a deal with the family, with the assistance of the Beijing police. The family agreed to affirm the official cause of Zhang's death as disease. In return, the family would accept millions of yuan in compensation. The case was closed.

But Wang Yueqin, also a petitioner, remembers vividly how a life was ended. 

Moments before the Tragedy

The tragic day of November 6 began for Wang when Beijing police stormed a room in a bath center and sent Wang and two fellow petitioners, Mi Chunxia and Huang Yinhua, to the Jiujingzhuang Assistance Service Center.

Established by China's petitions agency, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the center is the officially designated office for police and local officials to meet with petitioners. Sometimes an agreement is reached, but more often than not, local officials use the center as a venue for dissuading petitioners from seeking higher adjudication.

According to official rules, local governments may not intercept petitioners going to Beijing. Petitioners going to so-called sensitive areas in Beijing, including government offices and the high court for "abnormal petitioning" are first sent to Jiujingzhuang, then separated into groups and sent back home.

The flaws in the legal system, which closely linked with government interference, often leave petitions as the one legal avenue of recourse for Chinese citizens. But the waves of petitioners that come to the capital have also spawned a cottage industry of private jails and security forces paid for by local governments. So-called black guards are paid to intimidate, transport and detain petitioners from centers like Jiujingzhuang.

"Blocking petitioners is an open secret among China's political institutions and a practice that is tacitly permitted by the government," said Yu Jianrong, director of the Rural Development Institute's Social Issues Research Center at the China Academy of Social Sciences. "The filing of petitions generates a high economic and political cost for local governments."

Yu added that preventing individuals from filing petitions has a damaging effect on the legal system. "The practice is a violation of the basic rights of petitioners. It hurts the legitimacy of the government. It also encourages corruption when local governments try to bribe petition centers for timely information and collaborate in blocking petitioners from reaching their destination," said Yu.

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