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Making a journey built on a promise of justice

BEIJING — BEIJING - Deng Buhua and Yang Qiandi's dank, windowless boardinghouse seemed like the sort of place with no room to spare for hope. By the train tracks in the dusty slums of south central Beijing, the shack was far smaller than a railroad car and crowded with people who had tales of cruel injustices.

The 16 people there had come to Beijing from all over China, having endured persecution, corruption, and loss of land and loved ones in the provinces.

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Denied a fair hearing at home, they converged on the capital to take their cases to the central government.

They lined up at complaint windows that operate outside the courts and extend the prospect of a benevolent ruler's reprieve.

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The police, the courts, the prosecutors, the military, numerous ministries from agriculture to education to land resources, the Communist Party's disciplinary wing and each level of government all have their own petition offices.

And petitioners can walk into any one of them - in their hometown, in Beijing or at any layer of government in between - to register a complaint about any perceived wrong.

But the ubiquity of these offices ends up working against petitioners.

At worst, lodging a complaint invites the wrath of the local officials being complained about, who are often informed of the petition either through connections or by design.

At best, typically, walking into an office is the first step into a bureaucratic maze without an exit.

Some of the petitioners at the boardinghouse had lost family members, like Huang Qiong from central China, whose 15-year-old son was beaten to death by schoolmates five years ago.

Huang was a poor miner, and the alleged killers were well-connected, he said. So most of them are free, and Huang is here. Others, like Yang Xingcai, from remote northwest China, had lost their farmland, bulldozed by influential developers and their corrupt party patrons.

Some, like Yang Qiandi from southwest China, had been harassed or jailed for lodging complaints about corrupt officials and the illegal fees they levy, the business deals they make or the violent criminals they protect.

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The petitioners were following the spiritual footsteps of countless peasants who made the same long journey for justice in imperial times. They inherited an ancient folk wisdom in China: that local officials may be corrupt, but the leaders in Beijing must be good.

A new generation of Communist Party rulers, led by President Hu Jintao, seemed to hew to that wisdom, proclaiming last year that the central government cared about the people's problems.

These petitioners' desperate complaints, however, were repeatedly rejected.

'Not effective'

"These petition offices are not effective at all," said Yang Qiandi, a self-taught legal agitator from Sichuan province. "It's just a device that the government uses to fool its people."

Yet the other boarders in Yang Qiandi's and Deng's home still hope that they can one day have justice, and it was Yang Qiandi, the late Deng and the Communist Party that gave them that hope.

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Deng, branded an enemy of the party 47 years ago, was denied redress longer than any of them, the political rehabilitation he so desired still withheld even as he died last month.

"The common people of China are poorly educated, and their knowledge of the law is meager," Deng said in an interview shortly before his death at the age of 78. "That's why local governments can bully some of the common people, because they know too little about the law."

Collecting 60 cents a night from each boarder and using their own money, Deng and Yang Qiandi started a legal assistance fund to help Yang pay for a Beijing law school.

It was an act founded on the same poignant faith that if it were not for the lawless abuse of power by bad local officials, the system would work.

"I want to help Hu Jintao manage the country with the rule of law ... and use the rule of law to clear away all the bribery and corruption," Deng said, sitting on his bed beneath a gold-tassled crimson banner on the wall proclaiming, "Democracy, Human Rights, Rule of Law, Justice, Fairness, Openness."

China's development of rule of law has been one of the great hopes of reformers and human rights activists for 25 years, since Communist leaders began modernizing its legal system. The promise of rule of law, written into the constitution in 1999, has infused millions of disaffected farmers and workers with hope for a just society, but the government is still not ready to fulfill that promise.

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China has made strides in training lawyers and judges and resolving standard civil disputes, especially where neither side has political connections. The government wrote a new constitution 22 years ago and amended it this year to include protections for human rights and private property.

But the courts are not an independent check against the government's power. They remain a creature of the party, rife with the corruption, favoritism, abuse and politically tainted decision-making that are the inescapable products of a one-party dictatorship.

'Society of power'

"A lot of people's problems cannot be resolved through legal methods because the courts are directly controlled by the local governments," said Mo Shaoping, a prominent defense attorney in Beijing. "China is still a society of power. It is not a society of rule of law."

The stories of these petitioners reflect a growing awareness of legal rights among commoners and an amazingly resilient faith that someday, China's justice system will be something more than a placebo.

But their stories also demonstrate how far China has to go in establishing a working justice system; most petitioners came to Beijing because rule of law failed them. Then they found that the complaint windows, too, were a false hope.

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China's vast network of complaint bureaus extends to small townships and neighborhood districts throughout the country.

But thousands of petitioners travel to the central complaint offices in Beijing, where people live in squalid, semi-permanent neighborhoods collectively named "petitioner village."

They end up in Beijing because the petition offices are essentially powerless. Complaint bureaus can do little more than issue a letter recommending action, and even such a letter can be extremely difficult to obtain.

Usually, officials hearing complaints will tell petitioners that they cannot be helped, or that they need to go to a complaint bureau at a higher or lower level of government. They are also told to go to a different government agency's petition office or go to the place where they might have been wronged.

Lacking the connections or influence of the people who wronged them, petitioners like Huang never escape the bureaucratic maze. Huang's son was beaten to death in his native Hunan province in 1999. Three of the four alleged killers, all older schoolmates, are free today, Huang said, because of their powerful family connections.

A target for scrutiny

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But after Huang began petitioning to reopen the case, local authorities focused their attention on him instead.

He would be detained whenever higher-level officials visited his hometown. And in Beijing, he found officials unwilling to hold any other officials accountable.

"I'd request that they give justice to my son and they wouldn't really care," said Huang, 57. "They asked me to go back and seek out the officials at the People's Provincial High Court" in Hunan - the target of one of his original complaints.

Experts say that's not a failure of the system; it's precisely how it operates.

"We have to keep in mind that this complaint office is part of the Communist Party's infrastructure," said Li Dun, one of the nation's pre-eminent legal scholars. "If you go to the complaint office to complain about the party itself, then your problem will probably never be resolved."

When the petitioning system was set up in 1951, Li said, the party envisioned itself as the parent resolving disputes between children. In this idyllic sense, the complaint system was meant to be a benevolent network of listening posts.

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Instead, with many petitioners' complaints targeting the party itself for abuses, the benevolent listening posts now serve as "the ears for corrupt officials," Yang Xingcai said.

Yang, a former fruit-tree farmer whose land was seized for development in 1997, has visited petition offices at the county, city and provincial level in northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and in Beijing, to complain about the giveaway of land belonging to thousands of farmers.

Living in fear

But he was complaining about the most senior officials in the region, including Xinjiang's party secretary, and was detained once for his efforts. Now he lives in fear of detention, too afraid to air his grievances to any but the highest government officials.

"I dare not give these materials to the complaint bureau," said Yang, 54. "The complaint offices and the local governments are on the same side, and if they know that I'm complaining ... how can I live?"

Huang and Yang were losing hope last year when they met Deng Buhua, who had lived a lifetime of disappointment. Deng made his final petitioning trip to Beijing in 2003, 20 years after his first, still seeking to be cleared of a crime so old that the statute for it no longer exists in China.

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A distant cousin of revolutionary hero Deng Xiaoping, he held a comfortable government accounting job at Beijing and Shanghai factories in the 1950s.

However, he found trouble in part by complaining about the wasteful spending of a higher-up, and in 1957, he was declared a counterrevolutionary, a catch-all political crime.

In 1958, he was sentenced to a harsh exile of re-education through labor in remote northwest China, remaining in the impoverished region for a quarter-century.

Many who suffered such fates during Mao's political campaigns have appealed to petition offices and the courts over the years, seeking to have their counterrevolutionary judgments overturned. Several of these efforts succeeded, and the crime was removed from the penal code in 1997.

Deng launched a personal campaign that would span 20 years, with letter writing and visits to petition offices. He began with a 1983 trip to Beijing, during which, he said, he had a brief private audience with his distant cousin, then China's paramount leader.

'Partial rehabilitation'

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He also sued his old factory in a Shanghai court in 1985, he said, and won what he said was "partial rehabilitation," an acknowledgement that he had been punished too severely. However, that would be the closest he ever came to clearing his record.

After 20 years, though, Deng had not fully given up hope in the petition system. He returned to Beijing on March 29 of last year, days after China installed its new president.

Hu had raised the hopes of petitioners with his populist declarations, which some petitioners quote verbatim, most notably that "nothing related to common people's interests is a small matter."

Gaining any help was still tantamount to winning the lottery. Deng gave up and placed his hopes instead in his new friend, fellow petitioner Yang Qiandi.

Yang, 41, began teaching himself the law in 1989 and advised routine civil clients and criminal defendants as a government legal worker.

He became a believer in the emerging legal system but ran into obstacles when he tried to complain about illegal taxes and fees and corrupt local officials. After one trip to Beijing's complaint offices in 2001, he was detained for more than two weeks.

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He returned to Beijing last year to complain about his treatment in 2001, and, realizing the shortcomings of the complaint system, decided he wanted to do more to help the other petitioners. Deng persuaded him to go to law school, with the help of their legal assistance fund.

"I can speak justice for people all over the country," said Yang, sitting on a stool in his dormitory room, after class at Beijing's China University of Political Science and Law.

During his first year of law school, though, the situation for petitioners in Beijing deteriorated.

This winter and spring, Beijing police rousted hundreds of petitioners out of temporary homes, including underground pedestrian walkways where many slept. The city government issued new regulations essentially warning petitioners of harsh consequences if they disturb the peace.

Hundreds of petitioners tried marching to Tiananmen Square in December to demand better treatment and were detained, then sent back to their home provinces.

The government had turned the rule of law against them: The petitioners had applied for a permit to protest legally and, as with many such requests in China, they were denied.


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