Justice seekers must evade capture

Times Staff Writer

As Chinese have done for generations, Qiu Jie came to the capital to seek justice after being cheated out of his life savings. Instead, he says, officials from his home province lured him to a Beijing hotel, where they slapped him in handcuffs, beat him and took him away.

After they got him back home, they committed him to a police-run psychiatric hospital, where he was tied to a bed for 32 days, Qiu says. When he launched a hunger strike, they placed him on an intravenous drip.

Staff doctors, all police employees, diagnosed him with unspecified “mental disorders,” he says, and forced drugs down his throat. After he suffered a minor heart attack, the hospital released him. He believes it would have raised too many questions if he had died in custody.


Seeking justice in the capital is a tradition rooted in China’s imperial days, and even today Beijing maintains offices for tens of thousands of petitioners to file complaints against local officials for alleged corruption, theft, even murder.

Experts say the practice of appealing to the central government, even as China seeks to project a modern image in the approach to the Summer Olympics next year in Beijing, reflects a lack of avenues available to ordinary Chinese to fight abuses of power. Most courts remain under the thumb of Communist Party and government officials.

But when they get to Beijing, petitioners still face huge obstacles. A 2004 study found that fewer than one in 500 complaints were ever addressed. Many petitioners are simply referred back to the local authorities they are accusing. Others, like Qiu, face what fellow petitioner Wu Keqin calls “state-sanctioned kidnapping.”

Every day, hundreds of provincial prosecutors, local officials, undercover police and hired criminals are working in the capital as “retrievers,” those familiar with the system say. Their swagger and brutality have earned them nicknames such as “the wolves” and “the vultures.”

“It’s implied by the provincial officials who hire them that they’re allowed to use violence,” said Zhao Tianxin, an activist. “People really hate them but are too afraid to fight back.”

The work can be highly lucrative. Officials are willing to pay retrievers well because they know they face the loss of their jobs and party membership, imprisonment and even execution if national authorities decide the complaint against them has merit.

Qiu, 49, says that in 1988, he entrusted the Dalian Municipal Real Estate Bureau with $19,000 for two planned apartments. His family put down 20% and the rest was supplied by his then-employer. The bureau never built the units, nor would it refund his money, Qiu says. His appeals went unheeded, and in 2004 he began petitioning Beijing.

Qiu’s account, like that of many petitioners, could not be independently verified. An official at the psychiatric hospital confirmed that Qiu had been a patient there. “But what he told you is not necessarily true,” said the woman, who identified herself only by the family name Wang before hanging up.

Today Qiu lives off a small pension from his job at a grain company.

“Retrievers are little more than guard dogs for dark, corrupt officials,” he said.

Still, he kept trying, and family members said he was grabbed again in late April and sent back to the psychiatric hospital. He suffered another heart attack, they said, and they were told to supply his medicine themselves -- even though they were refused permission to visit him.

Asked about Qiu, police said he was receiving “forced therapy” because he had been schizophrenic for more than 20 years, and had “seriously disturbed public order by running naked, holding banners and threatening police and officials with knives.”

His family dismissed the police version as an excuse. “They’re lying. This is ridiculous!” said his wife, Jian Yingfeng. “If Qiu Jie had done any of these things, can you imagine they’d let him go?”

‘They’ll find me’

On a recent afternoon, several retrievers stood in front of petitioning offices of the National People’s Congress and the State Council, China’s legislature and Cabinet. They could be distinguished from the stream of bedraggled petitioners by their relatively expensive clothes, cars and what the petitioners call “hunter eyes.”

“You feel like a bit of prey passing the predators,” said Wang Jinlan, 45 and unemployed. She was fighting to win compensation for her family’s $12,000 truck, which she says police in Henan seized after a minor traffic offense. “Even though you know the crocodiles are there, you still have to go through.”

Retrievers often recognize their province’s most dogged petitioners on sight.

One of them is Hu Cuiying, 61, a retired engineer from Nanjing who estimates she’s been picked up and sent home a dozen times in two decades as she has sought compensation for the razing of her extended family’s homes.

“Unless I never leave my hotel, they’ll find me,” she said.

Since retrievers are paid only to bring back people from their own provinces, a common tactic is to ask petitioners where they’re from. Even if they lie, their accents probably will give them away.

Sometimes retrievers don shabby clothes and pose as petitioners. Or they work with Beijing police to gain access to guest lists at the cheap hotels where petitioners congregate, particularly before major Communist Party meetings. Sometimes petitioners are so desperate that they turn in other petitioners for small rewards.

Wu Youming, a police officer who worked periodically from 1993 to 2006 as a retriever for Hubei province, said he came to believe that the system is wasteful and illegal and creates distrust between citizens and the government.

“No one thinks petitioners are really committing crimes,” he said. “It really pained me.”

In March, after he publicly called on China’s rubber-stamp congress to ban the practice, he was fired. “According to the police code, I betrayed the system,” he said. “I became the ‘horse that hurt the herd.’ ”

There’s no clear data on how many claims might be justified. Some appear to involve relatively small slights from long ago. Despite their limited prospects, some petitioners make repeated trips to Beijing, sometimes for decades.

“At the core, you have a fundamental, institutional failure,” said Carl Minzner, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Holding facility

Petitioners say they sometimes elude capture by making a dash at an opportune moment, jumping from a bus window or slipping away while using the restroom. Huang Jinhe, a police officer who became a petitioner after stumbling across the questionable finances of his superiors, says he avoids capture by acting like a retriever himself.

When captured, some petitioners are sent straight home. Others said they initially were kept in dark basement rooms of the hotel and office complexes the provinces maintain here.

Still others are rounded up by Beijing police and sent to an enormous holding facility called Majialou, a low-rise building set back from the street behind a white wall guarded by police. A brass sign on the gate reads: “No interviews, no photos. No video. No unrelated persons.” Expensive government cars and police vans bearing provincial plates stream past.

Former detainees of the facility said that once there, they were checked, photographed and sorted into rooms based on province, where they waited for the retrievers.

A television set blared a propaganda video on a 20-minute loop, they said. Its main message: Police were justified in holding them in the interest of public order. Sometimes the message was buttressed by testimonials from petitioners confessing to “frivolous complaints.” Most detainees ignored it.

Jing Huaiyu, 53, a frequent detainee at Majialou, said he likes leading crowds in singing the communist “Internationale” with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

“I especially like the ending about how the [capitalist] snakes and evil beasts eat our flesh and blood,” he said. “The real snakes are the retrievers and bad officials.”

Most petitioners are released the same day, but those kept overnight sleep on hard benches and are given little to eat. Once they are taken home, they might be released or face temporary house arrest. They also could be subject to interrogation, imprisonment or “reeducation” at labor camps, which are run by police without judicial oversight.

He Fangwu, 41, a farmer from Hunan, said he had been petitioning for more than a decade, after his father was beaten to death in 1992 for reporting that local officials were embezzling from a disaster relief fund.

Using chopsticks, He demonstrated how local officials jammed splinters under his nails and subjected him to the “tiger chair,” in which the victim’s torso is bound to a chair and his legs tied to a bench. His feet are gradually raised until his knees are at near-breaking pressure.

Lawyers and activists estimate the cost of capturing petitioners at tens of millions of dollars a year.

‘Designed to scare you’

An experienced retriever from a northeastern province said he drew a full salary plus $700 a month in subsidies, in addition to $250 for every petitioner he caught. During peak periods before big political meetings, he grabs at least 50 petitioners in two weeks, said the retriever, a middle-aged man with sharp eyes and a deep blue jacket who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Alerting a major property developer to a petitioner who could jeopardize his real estate empire results in an immediate deposit to the retriever’s bank account, he said.

Retrievers also spend money to make money. The petitioning offices often have three windows: one for petitioners to request forms, a second where they turn them in and a third where they go if an official grants a hearing. Retrievers often bribe the clerks at all three to prevent petitioners’ gripes from being processed, said a person who used to work in one such office. He estimated that at least 60% of complaints were buried this way.

Street vendors who make a living helping illiterate petitioners fill out forms also are paid off, said the retriever from the northeast, who added that a retriever’s income and perks make him the envy of people back home.

“But I regret I took the job,” he said. “You use whatever means to get them back, but you still have your conscience.”

Yang Zongsheng, 47, unemployed and nearly blind since birth, has spent decades petitioning for a Beijing residency permit after his family was stripped of it during the tumultuous 1960s.

A year ago, he said, police stopped him in front of Beijing’s main rail station, taped his mouth and eyes shut and left him in the trunk of a car for three hours before locking him up in a hotel. The next day, Yang said, he was sent back to Hebei province and put in a labor camp, where he was kept for a year.

“The whole system is designed to scare you and prevent you from petitioning anymore,” he said, his right eye fused shut and his left a milky hue.

“While it’s easier to catch me since I’m blind, for many of us, all this just increases our resolve. No matter how often they drag us back, we’ll keep fighting for justice.”