In days gone by, victims of injustice sought redress at the emperor’s court. History books and television soap operas are filled with stories of upright Confucian officials travelling thousands of li to the capital hoping to have unjust decisions overturned. The act of petitioning is called shangfang, which means ‘upward visit’.
Call it a hangover from the imperial past but thousands of aggrieved petitioners continue to resort to the centuries-old form of seeking justice. Every year many make the journey to Beijing to highlight a grievance — the illegal seizure of land or property, perhaps, or cases of bullying by local authorities. Most believe that they have a higher chance of winning redress by directly petitioning a higher level of the Party than by filing a lawsuit locally.
“Everybody in China knows that the lower the level of government, the more corruption there is,“ says Jiang Rongsheng, a petitioner from Anhui province who has been to Beijing three times in the past year to protest at what he describes as the seizure of land by local officials without compensation.
The current version of shangfang is supported by a system of what the Communist Party calls the Office of Letters and Visits, says Philip Pan, author of Out of Mao’s Shadow. Almost every province has this petitioning set-up but the busiest offices are in the capital.
The chances of success, however, are infinitesimally small – with just 2 out of every 1,000 petitions likely to achieve any sort of result, says TIME magazine. Still, that does not deter poorer Chinese with few connections from trying their luck. Many of them end up camping outside the Letters and Visits offices, which are usually located on backstreets away from the gaze of tourists.
But having so many protesters crowding into Beijing can still create an image problem, especially for those being petitioned against.
Yu Jianrong, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said local governments have been pulling out all stops to prevent petitioners travelling to Beijing. Some petitioners have even been sent off for a stay in local mental hospitals.
Critics say the growing petitioners points to a bigger problem. Confidence in the legal system is not high. At the local level especially, judges are often poorly schooled or open to pay-offs.
Take Zhao Zuohai. Two weeks ago, the 57-year-old village man in Henan, was discovered to be innocent after the man he had allegedly murdered turned up alive. After spending 11 years behind bars, Zhao went home to find his wife remarried and his children adopted by other families. He was awarded Rmb650,000 in compensation (and is now demanding double that to account for his “mental loss”).
But how did an innocent man end up in prison? Zhao said he was beaten during interrogations until he confessed to the crime. The three judges in charge of Zhao’s case have been suspended from their posts and are being investigated. Two police officials have also been detained on suspicion of torturing Zhao.
Zhao’s case is one of the most glaring examples but not particularly unusual in exposing local injustices.
In fact, some experts say the recent wave of school killings (see last week’s Talking Point) can partly be blamed on citizens’ frustration that their own rights are often overlooked. Some say too that a petition system more capable of recognising grievances might have prevented some of the tragedies.
The case of Wang Yonglai is one example. The 45-year-old farmer attacked five schoolchildren on April 30 with a hammer and then set himself alight. He was believed to have been infuriated by a dispute with a local official, says Xinhua. Wang was told that a house he had built for his son with his life savings would have to be demolished because it was illegally constructed on farmland.
“In the long run, it boils down to building a society where everyone is treated justly by law,” says Ma Ai, a sociology professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.
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