Recent years have seen an increase in the number of protests in Beijing by Chinese citizens frustrated with corruption, crime and economic dislocations. Elderly men and women in ragged clothes can often be seen holding sit-ins, blocking officials' cars or kneeling in supplication around government offices and state media outlets in the Chinese capital. They often carry banners or sheaves of worn documents attesting to the abuses they claim to have suffered.
Many of these petitioners flock to Beijing's south side, to bring their cases to the complaints office of China's supreme court. They find lodging in dingy hostels, which charge a few cents for a space on a communal sleeping platform. The hostels often provide access to services such as copying documents and providing addresses of government offices.
One hostel resident is a slender woman named Ying Jinxian, from eastern Zhejiang province. She cries as she accuses her local communist party secretary of kidnapping her then 7-year-old son. After five years of fighting to get her son back, she finally took a megaphone to the residences of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and pleaded her case as loudly as she could. She believes the leaders now know about her case.
Many of China's government departments have "Letters and Visits" offices to receive complaints. The complaints system allows citizens to report grievances to authorities, who are then supposed to instruct other government departments to resolve the problems.] It is a throwback to China's imperial days, when citizens could plead their cases all the way to the capital if they couldn't get justice at home.
Today, the petitioners' thinking is heavily influenced by this tradition. They're looking for an upright and sympathetic official to personally intervene in their case. One recent survey found that only 2 percent of petitioners in Beijing had their cases resolved by the "Letters and Visits" system. But many petitioners have no other choice, as the local courts and media tend to be under the control of local governments. Petitioners complain that the "Letters and Visits" system often hands their cases right back to the local officials who cause the problems in the first place. Some experts and scholars argue that the system is incompatible with the rule of law that China is trying to build and should therefore be scrapped.
Many petitioners believe that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are on their side. They circulate government documents in which Hu Jintao has spoken sympathetically of protesters and petitioners. Hu and Wen's pledge to redirect government spending to basic rural services have helped to build an image of populist leaders who care about those who not benefited from China's economic growth.
Most of the petitioners are not protesting against the central government or communist party, but against abuses by local officials. Petitioners argue that the leadership's policies are good; it's just that local officials refuse to properly implement them. This argument is, in part, a tactic to secure the support of high officials. The leadership often finds it expedient to agree, blaming citizens' problems on wayward local officials.
"We farmers still have hope in Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao because they abolished the agriculture tax after taking office," says Wu Zhiyin, a farmer from east China's Jiangsu province. A patient man with a tidy crew cut, Wu is in Beijing protesting against his local communist party secretary, whose son allegedly stabbed him after Wu complained to authorities about heavy local taxes. He rolls up his shirt and sweater to display what he says is the knife wound from the incident.
Despite their grim situation, Wu and others manage a bit of humor. Wu reads us a poem about his quest for justice. The wishful ending can be roughly translated as follows:
"We find Premier Wen Jiabao, and then find President Hu Jintao/The President's order the Premier carries out/The corrupt officials are then caught, no doubt/The criminals are at last indicted, and the people's wrongs are finally righted."