HONG KONG — ; Twenty-three petitioners from the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang who were detained after an attempted mass suicide outside the Supreme Court in Beijing were speaking and acting on behalf of thousands of others left with no redress from grievances against the government.
The 23 petitioners, some of whom were former employees of the Hegang city mining bureau, climbed to the top of a building 20 meters high and threatened to jump, triggering a five-hour standoff with police and emergency services. They were eventually detained for causing a disturbance, a Beijing newspaper reported.
Li Guozhu, who was at the scene Monday along with thousands of other petitioners and bystanders, told RFA that the 23 had traveled to Beijing to represent the views of several thousand laid-off mine workers in the province.
"Those 23 people who went on this trip to Beijing were followed everywhere they went by 19 security officials from their hometown...they were [repeatedly] forced into their vans and taken away."
"They weren't able to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square. In the end they were in despair. So they decided to use their suicides as a gesture of protest against the Chinese government," Li said.
He said the protesters represented Hegang City mining bureau employees laid off between 1996 and 1998. They had received between 8,000 yuan (U.S.$1,000) and 10,000 yuan (U.S.$1,200) in compensation for several decades of service. Their attempts to petition various courts and government departments had met with no result.
Eyewitness Liu Shuqing said she admired the courage of the 23 protesters. "They climbed up onto a five-storey building, shouting anti-corruption slogans, demanding human rights and personal freedoms, that they needed to be able to make a living, to be able to eat," she said.
"Then they were going to jump. There were probably around 3,000, not as many as 4,000 people there at the scene...they were not just expressing their own views. They were speaking for the feelings of the tens of thousands of petitioners across the country, crying out loud for us against the corruption in this country. We hold these people in deep admiration and respect," Liu said.
Monday's protest was virtually ignored by Chinese official media. Only one Chinese newspaper seen by RFA ran a short paragraph on the story, saying that the protesters had been detained and were under investigation for causing a disturbance in a public place, the Jinhua Times reported.
An employee at Beijing's cutting-edge Xinqing Daily newspaper told RFA that she had heard about the news. "Yes, there were people threatening to jump off a building, I heard. We sent someone down to look. No [we didn't print a story]. That decision wasn't made by us," she said.
The Chinese authorities continue to persecute the growing number of petitioners across the country. Police often beat them, detain them, and even send them to labor camps or bring criminal cases against them in court. They are frequently followed to Beijing by police from their hometowns, with the collusion of police in the capital.
"Now, from June to July, there have already been 2,670 detentions across the country. These statistics are gathered by our fellow petitioners. We have recorded the ID cards of all those people, so it's verifiable," Li told RFA.
The requisition of land by local governments and their crony development companies is a frequent cause for complaint in China, as local residents are evicted from their homes with little ceremony and scant compensation so local governments can cash in on skyrocketing property values.
Another common complaint is the non-payment of salaries and retirement pensions by local governments, which are perennially short of cash. Police brutality and beatings to death in custody have also triggered social unrest in some areas.