HONG KONG—New rules governing the treatment of thousands of ordinary citizens who pursue complaints against government officials across China are unlikely to change the lot of petitioners, who routinely face police harassment, round-ups, and even beatings as they seek redress.
The new regulations are an update of China's 10 year-old Regulations on Petitioners, known in Chinese as "letters and visits," and aim to "protect the lawful rights" of petitioners, according to Wei Jinmu, deputy director of the State Petitions Bureau.
But as RFA's Mandarin service has learned, "protection" of petitioners in law often turns into coercion and ill treatment on the ground.
"Around the time of the National People's Congress in March, they detained me, saying it was government assistance," Beijing petitioner Ju Hongyi told RFA's Investigative Report .
"I was unwell and had to see a dentist, and they kept me for five hours before they let me go. Then they wouldn't let me come back to my home district, and three of them followed me if I tried to. In the end I spent the whole night wandering around the city with nowhere to go," said Ju, who has been petitioning for nine years since being evicted from her home.
Yes, of course, we are going to start cracking down harder now... This work was already being done by the executive departments, the police, and so on, but since the new rules came into effect, it is being stepped up further.
While the rules stipulate that "no organization or individual is allowed to retaliate against petitioners, and offenders will be held to account," they also appear to place the responsibility for petitions firmly with regional governments, in an apparent attempt to stop the growing numbers of petitioners who converge on the capital with their complaints.
Local authorities are now increasingly involved in chasing petitioners from their hometowns who try to press their case in the capital, and that pattern looks set to continue, if not intensify, officials told RFA.
"Yes, of course, we are going to start cracking down harder now," an government official surnamed Zhang in the southern Beijing district of Fengtai, home of the capital's main petitioner squatter camp, told RFA reporter Bai Fan.
"This work was already being done by the executive departments, the police, and so on, but since the new rules came into effect, it is being stepped up further," Zhang said.
An official in an unnamed provincial representative office in Beijing blamed local governments for failing adequately to address petitions against them, forcing increasingly desperate petitioners to head for the capital in the hope of getting someone to listen to them.
"Beijing is a politically sensitive place, so the police need to do something about it. But what can they do? So they look to us to solve the problem. But what can we do, except send them home again? And if we send them home they only come back again. It's a vicious circle," the official said.
He said he believed that most of the petitioners had a bona fide complaint, especially those who had lost homes or land in recent years.
"If there wasn't something real to complain about then why would they bother to do it? Just think, they have to spend a lot of money on travel expenses, and it's exhausting...These are ordinary respectable people, and yet they have to put up with having nowhere to stay and nothing to eat. That's real suffering," he said.
"They or their families must already be a desperate situation to do that...And they're not even given the time of day. I really think the government is doing them wrong."
If there wasn't something real to complain about then why would they bother to do it? Just think, they have to spend a lot of money on travel expenses, and it's exhausting...These are ordinary respectable people, and yet they have to put up with having nowhere to stay and nothing to eat. That's real suffering. They or their families must already be a desperate situation to do that... And they're not even given the time of day. I really think the government is doing them wrong.
In March, Supreme People’s Court president Xiao Yang said his court had handled 147,665 petition cases in 2004, an increase of 23.6 percent over 2003, while local courts handled 4.22 million cases, an increase of just 6.2 percent.
Zhou Yongkang, head of the State Council’s Petitions Office, has publicly estimated that around 80 percent of China's petitioners have valid complaints arising from China’s development and reform.
Evictions and land disputes make up the majority of complaints, as local officials rush to redevelop property on the back of a massive boom in the sector.
Other grievances include environmental pollution and allegations of official corruption and violence, especially deaths in police custody.
The rules point to a growing determination on the part of central government to force local governments to face the consequences of their own actions, rather than leaving Beijing to sort out their problems.
But petitioners fear that the end result could be even heavier-handed tactics from their local authorities.
Shanghai-based petitioner Shen Yongmei described a large-scale and coordinated operation to prevent petitioners from traveling to the capital, a story other petitioner accounts suggest is typical.
"On the evening of April 24, we were on the 8:10 p.m. train to Beijing...when the train got to Wuxi a lot of police got on the train," Shen told RFA. "They didn't say anything, but by the time we got to Changzhou, hundreds of police, including the Wuxi police, got on the train and pulled us off."
"They carried me off the train and that hurt my arms until they bled. Later they put some ointment on me at the station. A lot of the passengers on the train were cursing the police, calling them bandits, heartless people. It made them very sad to see such actions," Shen said.
"We've never caused any trouble," Shanghai petitioner Xu Jimei told RFA's Mandarin service. "All we've ever done is try to talk to someone about this. And they beat us and terrorize us."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.