Residents of Beijing’s “petitioners’ village,” an area of cheap hotels and makeshift houses where the poor and downtrodden gather in search of justice, are bracing for the bulldozers.
Destruction of neighborhoods and forced relocation are common in the Chinese capital as traditional neighborhoods are rapidly torn apart by well-connected developers erecting gleaming towers. But this area has more political significance than your average neighborhood.
For several generations, it has been a repository of the pain and frustration felt by those who come to Beijing to appeal to national authorities to right perceived wrongs. Large white notices posted in recent days warn residents of the Fengtai district to vacate the area by noon Wednesday to make way for a new road and overpass complex leading to the nearby Southern Railway Station.
The plans have been in the works for a while. But some see secondary motives in the timing, including a desire to scatter the community of “troublemakers” in advance of next month’s Communist Party Congress and to remove an eyesore before the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The petitioners’ village is an area of several square blocks wedged behind a wholesale shoe emporium just south of Beijing’s second ring road. Against a wall, a man sells photocopies of various laws for 24 cents apiece near graffiti reading, “Zero percent of petitioners get justice, but righteousness still spurs us on.”
Zheng Daohong, 65, of Anhui province, has lived in the village on and off for eight years. Until recently, he paid the equivalent of 60 cents a night to sleep in a 30-foot-square room with 19 people and one electric fan.
Zheng has little money and, like many of the estimated 3,000 petitioners living in the village at any given time, a dog-eared pile of papers he carries from one government office to the next.
He wants to find out what happened to his son, who disappeared shortly after he left home eight years ago to seek his fortune in Shanghai. Zheng suspects he ran afoul of government officials there.
A villager from their hometown held in a Shanghai detention center at the time reported seeing his son. As soon as Zheng heard this, he rushed to Shanghai, only to be told that his son had been sent to another facility, where the trail went cold.
“I think the chances of his still being alive are very slim,” said Zheng, who was recently kicked out of the petitioners’ village by his landlord and forced to relocate to an adjoining neighborhood. “Either his kidney was sold or he was executed, a scapegoat for some rich guy’s crimes.”
Few appeals elicit an answer, or even much of an interest in launching an investigation.
By some accounts, the petitioning system dates back as far as 3,000 years ago to the Western Zhou Dynasty. At that time, those who felt wronged could bang a drum near the government offices and have their complaints heard.
In 1951, shortly after the Communists took control, Mao Tse-tung initiated a petitioning system intended to meet legitimate demands of people for justice rather than confront them with bureaucracy and indifference.
Within a few months, however, the system was overwhelmed by complaints. This embarrassed a government intent on building a perfect society, critics say, leading to decades of neglect, harassment and punishment for those who dared to speak out.
The number of petitions and visits to make an official complaint increased from 4.8 million nationwide in 1995 to 12.7 million a decade later. A major problem with the system, critics say, is that petitioning is not seen as a legal right but, rather, as a privilege that benevolent officials may or may not grant.
And many don’t. Most petitioners are referred back to the same local authorities they accused of mistreating them in the first place, critics say.
Beijing has been wary of having so many disgruntled people concentrated in one area, some say, because they could eventually combine forces and pose a political threat. In recent weeks, the government has reportedly imposed new rules limiting any single petition to no more than five people.
“The authorities’ knee-jerk reaction to mass events is to disperse them, airbrush them away,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based China researcher with Human Rights Watch. “In the larger scheme of things, this contributes to unrest. If those with legitimate concerns can’t even be heard, they become radicalized.”
Tearing down the petitioners’ village may disperse people who have complaints about local injustice or police brutality, but it won’t stop them from coming to Beijing, experts say.
“The problem is that the system, including the police, prosecutors and courts, are often creating more injustice, not solving underlying problems,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
A foreign journalist who entered the village of run-down single-story houses recently was besieged by petitioners grabbing at his clothes, pulling him into doorways, forcing copies of complaints into his hand and thrusting telephone numbers at him in hopes that overseas attention might embarrass government officials into resolving their cases.
The petitioners’ village is also riddled with spies, informers and police, both uniformed and undercover.
Within a few minutes of a journalist starting to talk to residents in a back alley, a uniformed policeman showed up and gruffly took names, ID numbers, employer and residency permit and other details. This treatment by capital police occurs despite new rules that are supposed to give foreign correspondents broad latitude to gather information.
Implicit in any such exchange is the risk of a follow-up call by authorities and a new entry in the files police keep on almost everyone.
A government study this year found that 71% of petitioners were facing increased intimidation and retaliation since new procedures were enacted in 2005. Despite the risk, many petitioners are desperate.
“Of course we are worried and need to be very careful in the petitioners’ village,” Zheng said, “but we don’t have a choice.”
Mixed in with the petitioners are the neighborhood’s original residents, many of whom make money by renting rooms to the transient population. Several said the offer of $460 a square meter in compensation is inadequate, given that replacement apartments in the neighborhood are going for three times that amount.
“I don’t mind if they tear down the place,” said a 30-year resident of the area who identified himself only by his family name, Zhang. “But the compensation is too low.”
Despite the important role the petitioners’ village has played in many people’s lives, few are likely to miss it.
“For petitioners, it only evokes pain and sorrow,” said Zhang Xingshui, a human rights lawyer and director of the Beijing Kingdom law firm who is not related to the longtime Fengtai resident.
Southern Beijing, where the petitioners’ village is located, is part of an area that was known for brothels and down-on-their-luck aristocrats well before the Communists took over in 1949.
“The southern part of Beijing, going back to ancient times, always attracted a lot of poor people, in part because it was seen as having bad feng shui,” said Zhou Rong, an architecture professor at Qinghua University. Most of Beijing’s wind and water flow from the mountainous northwest, leaving the south with the runoff and the full brunt of Mongolian sandstorms.
In the late 1950s, construction of the Southern Railway Station added to the neighborhood’s transient nature, longtime residents say, followed in the late 1970s by a detention center for out-of-town residents.
Petitioning offices were originally attached to their respective ministries, but in the 1980s the government decided to move several to the Fengtai area. Petitioners soon found rooms in the neighboring area, giving rise to the petitioners’ village.
“The idea was probably to move them out of sight so they wouldn’t mar the image of the government agencies,” said Zhang, the lawyer.