While families across China celebrated the annual Mid-Autumn Festival, a group of mostly homeless petitioners in Shanghai gathered to share their grievances against the government and seek comfort from one another.
Most people spent their festival celebration on Monday watching the full moon and eating traditional food, including mooncake pastries.
But some 20 petitioners and rights activists in China’s second city met that night to share their stories and offer each other support in their hunt for justice. At least one petitioner was stalked by police after lodging a complaint.
Wang Kouma, a petitioner who joined the group, said many who gathered had lost their homes to the government.
“We had a Mid-Autumn Festival gathering of Shanghai petitioners and rights activists. Among us many people lost their homes and had become homeless. Some of us had been to local courts but those courts refused to process our cases,” Wang said.
“We feel that the government probably will never address our grievances.”
Li Huifang, another petitioner, said the group members had nowhere else to go during the festival.
“We celebrated the traditional holiday by ourselves because we don’t have homes. We have nothing,” Li said.
“The life of a petitioner is not easy. In fact it has been really painful for the last eight or nine years during which we petitioned various government offices. Still, our properties have not been returned.”
“We common people cannot live like normal human beings.”
“I was sent to a laogai or ‘education through labor’ program after I resisted the forced demolition of my home and was just released earlier this year,” said Chen Qiyong, who also came to the gathering.
“I petitioned many times since, but they just turned deaf ears to my suffering,” Chen said.
During the past decade, citizens in Shanghai have frequently traveled to Beijing and local government offices to complain about the demolition of their homes to make way for various development projects.
They say they have been evicted and their homes destroyed without proper compensation.
Jin Yuehua, a petitioner who lost her land in Maqiao township of Shanghai, said that authorities had been carefully monitoring her activities, even through the holidays.
“When I returned home on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, I saw two men sitting at my doorway,” Jin said.
“I asked them, ‘Who are you?’ They answered that they had been ordered to watch her movements by ‘upper level management.’”
“When I asked why, they said they didn’t know,” Jin added.
Jin said she suspected that the municipal authorities wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t stir up trouble ahead of planned construction on her land.
“The city is planning to hold a ceremony on Sept. 22 to begin the housing construction project on the land they grabbed from us,” she said.
“I heard that Shanghai city leaders might come to cut the ribbon, so the authorities don’t want us to go there to protest.”
Petitioning for redress
Thousands of petitioners seek out the central authorities each year to seek redress for complaints against their local governments.
They are frequently held in "black jails," which stand outside the criminal justice system, and are escorted back to their hometowns by local governments, which run representative offices in the capital for the purpose.
Petitioning authorities for redress has a long history in China.
The current system, set up five decades ago to serve as a bridge between the ruling Communist Party and the people, seldom resolves problems, instead sparking detentions, beatings, and harassment of those who dare to complain, according to petitioners and social activists.
The contemporary "letters and visits" system was formally established in 1951 and reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
China says it receives between 3 million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, with the number having peaked at 12.72 million in 2003.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Ping Chen.