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Chinese petition: ancient tactic for modern protest
Huey Fern Tay reports on the Chinese petitioners seeking justice the old-fashioned way.

China's rule of law, or lack of it, has been under heavy scrutiny of late with high profile cases involving Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng.

While those cases have played out amid blinding publicity, for most Chinese the pursuit of justice gets little attention.

And, as China correspondent, Huey Fern Tay, reports, many people still rely on petitions to the government; a practice that is centuries old.
Transcript
HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: A wall of concrete surrounds Wang Junghong's home in Beijing.

Property developers encircled his Mr Wang's home with the wall after he refused to make way for their plans to build block blocks of apartments. His father is the only one who still lives there. Living conditions are poor. As Mr Wang shows us photographs and material documenting his long battle, he explains why the family turned down 530,000 yuan eight years ago. That's around $85,000 Australian now.

WANG JUNHONG, PETITIONER (Translation): I hold the rights to this land and they offered me an apartment but I won't own the land on which it's built on.

The money they were offering me was too low.

HUEY FERN TAY: Part of Mr Wang's fight involved writing to this government department, called the Office of Letters and Calls.

It forwards complaints Chinese citizens have about officials to other government departments.

When we visited the office was closed but some petitioners linger outside because they have come from far away and have nowhere else to go. A few of them approach us with grievances that have a familiar cry in today's China: land grabbing and corruption.


LIU FUZHOU, PETITIONER (Translation): Under normal circumstances they can't sell our land by force. They have to talk to us, the villagers, about compensation. But they took our land illegally without asking us.

WANG BAOGAN, PETITIONER (Translation): It's difficult for ordinary people like us to seek redress. Who will speak up for us? We can only plead with the government to give us justice? The Communist Party is good but the local officials are just too corrupt.

HUEY FERN TAY: The second time we visit the office, the crowd is considerably larger and so is the police presence. A row of empty buses line the street, each one with a few police officers inside. They are there to take petitioners away.

Some people have been known to be taken to illegal detention centres known as black jails, where they may be beaten up.

The cars and vans with provincial licence plates are said to belong with interceptors who leave with petitioners from their region to stop them from complaining. These interceptors can the government official, policemen or thugs.

Petitioners take a risk by coming.

WANG BAOGAN (Translation): I was last year during the National People's Congress. The Beijing police took me away as soon as I got off the train and held me for one afternoon. Then authorities from my home town took me away and I never got to submit my documents. That was a wasted effort.

HUEY FERN TAY: This entire area just across from the national Office of Letters and Calls used to be known as the petitioners village. It's where petitioners from out of town used to stay. But in 2008 the authorities cleared this entire area to make way for the Beijing South railway station.

China's rapid and robust growth has transformed the country but the cracks beneath the surface of the new China are spreading, in part because of discontent over the costs of progress and the manner in which this unhappiness is addressed.

FENG SHIZHENG, RENMIN UNIVERSITY (Translation): Petitioning can't solve problems. People should go through the administration, but most of them hold on to a belief that their problems can be solved quickly. That is why they keep petitioning and that's why there's a backlog of cases.

HUEY FERN TAY: Feng Shizeng says authorities would rather petitioners seek justice in court but many of them are unable to hire a lawyer. They are so poor that they can only afford to rent a bed for five yuan a day in a village like this when they come to the capital seeking redress.

Their frustrations over corruption and other in justices are scrawled on the walls; a reminder that many in China are missing out on the economic miracle.
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