Silenced for now on streets of Beijing
On a hot summer night about 10:30, the many men and women living under an elevated section of highway were trying to nod off, swatting the mosquitoes at their ears, shifting their hips uncomfortably on sheets of newspaper and cardboard strewn on the pavement, when someone shouted, “Police!”
By the time most could rouse themselves, it was too late. Police had blocked the routes of escape with large buses they would later use to cart away their quarry.
The bedtime bust was part of a massive Olympic cleanup, in which thousands of Chinese citizens are being booted out of the capital like gate-crashers at a party.
The underpass raid that began July 13 and continued for two days netted about 1,000 people. All were petitioners who had come to protest mistreatment in their home provinces.
Petitioning dates to the time of the earliest Chinese emperors and is enshrined in Chinese law. It is the most basic form of protest in China, with ordinary citizens pressing bread-and-butter concerns over unfair firings and arrests, misconduct and corruption by local Communist Party officials.
As part of its bid to host the Olympics, China promised to improve its human rights record. Last month, the government announced that it would go so far as to designate space in city parks where protesters could exercise free speech.
But such pledges come at the same time as the unprecedented crackdown in the streets. Along with beggars and pickpockets, the petitioners appear to top the list of the personae non gratae whom Beijing wants out before Friday.
The petitioners are living in the streets largely because the Chinese government, citing concerns over Olympic security, has in recent weeks closed down thousands of cheap hotels and basement apartments where rooms could be rented for less than $1 a day. The government has also demolished housing in entire neighborhoods where petitioners have lived.
“They are trying to drive us out of Beijing. They say we create a negative image. They treat us like refugees and criminals,” said Wang Lijun, 37, who is petitioning to get a military pension for his father, a Korean War veteran who was stripped of all benefits after being accused of being an “anti-revolutionary” in 1958.
Wang was kept awake by the heat of the night on July 13 so he was able to jump to his feet quickly enough to escape by running onto the highway.
It is common for Chinese authorities to chase out petitioners during key events, such as the Communist Party congresses, but the intensity of the current effort is unprecedented, petitioners say.
“They are cracking down on us more than ever before. They regard us as enemies who will disrupt the stability of the country,” said Li Li, 44, from Shanxi, who has been petitioning for seven years over her husband’s firing from a management job at a steel plant. “They ask us to embrace the Olympic Games, to love their country, love the party. But they don’t love us.”
One popular spot for petitioners in recent days has been underneath the exit ramps of an elevated section of the Second Ring Road, an area known as Kaiyang Bridge close to the Beijing South Railroad Station and the Supreme Court. They hang out on the sidewalk, often holding dog-eared petitions that they thrust at anybody who will pay attention.
As many as 10,000 had been there until the crackdown. Now only a few hundred are left, and they face harassment or arrest. On a recent day, a woman was grabbed by four police officers who forced her into a police car and drove her away, according to several witnesses.
“She was yelling, ‘Help, help.’ It was like a kidnapping,” Wang said.
“It was shocking. The police car didn’t even have license plates,” said petitioner Li, who also witnessed the incident. She believes police probably had come from the woman’s home province of Heilongjiang to bring her back.
“They’ve been told that if any of their people disrupt the Olympic Games, they will be held responsible and could lose their own jobs. That is why they are desperate and will do anything to get them back,” Li said.
The worst abuses are blamed not on Beijing police but on so-called retrievers, who are in effect bounty hunters sent from the provinces to return people home, receiving up to $700 per head. Petitioners complain that the retrievers loiter around railroad stations or the very offices where they are going to petition, eavesdropping to detect familiar dialects from their home province.
“Even getting off the train, I was worried they would see me,” said Wu Huangying, 37, who arrived in Beijing in June to petition for the release of her younger brother, who she says was tortured into confessing responsibility for the bombing of a Communist Party office in Fujian province. “We can’t go anywhere in Beijing without somebody asking to see our identity card.”
Wu was interviewed last month. Later, she left a message at the Los Angeles Times office saying she had been arrested while trying to deliver a petition to the Central Office of Letters and Visits, whose main function is in fact to accept petitions. In subsequent text messages, she wrote that she was being held in a small hotel in Beijing, well-fed with bread, eggs and vegetables but locked in her room. She said her nail clippers and camera had been confiscated.
In the past, petitioners have been sentenced to labor camps or confined in psychiatric hospitals. A large detention center called Majialou in southern Beijing is believed to hold many petitioners. In some cases, they are simply sent back home -- where they’ll take a rest, raise money and then return to Beijing.
The closing of basement apartments, which took effect July 20, has also forced many migrant workers out of the city for lack of housing. And many migrants employed on building sites have lost their jobs because of a temporary ban on construction in an effort to help clear the city’s polluted air during the Games.
Then there are people in selected occupations -- bicycle repairmen, scrap-paper recyclers, fortune tellers, peddlers -- that the Chinese government has decided do not fit into the image of Beijing as a modern, Westernized city and are not being allowed to work.
Among the uninvited, the petitioners are perhaps the most persistent about remaining in Beijing. Many see the Olympics as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a wider audience for their grievances if only they can get near the thousands of VIPs and foreign journalists expected in town.
“I am risking my life to be here during the Olympics,” said Wang Haizhen, a 35-year-old homemaker whose husband, a veterinarian, was arrested last year on charges she says were trumped up by a boss jealous of his plans to start a veterinary medicine company. She described her husband as a loyal Communist Party member who had planned to attend the Olympic Games.
“My husband is crazy about sports, especially football,” Wang said. “He so wanted to be here for the Olympics -- now it is just me.”
Wang says she will be unable to attend any of the Olympic events because security officials are screening identity cards of ticket buyers and she would be quickly identified as a petitioner. Instead, she hopes to find a place somewhere near the stadium or in Tiananmen Square where she can unfurl a banner, perhaps in front of television cameras.
Many of the petitioners keep hand-lettered cloth banners in their pockets and purses, waiting for the opportunity.
“Old revolutionary suffers unjust treatment!” says one.
“A hospital’s experiments gave me cancer,” read another scrawled by Li Shenzhen, a 46-year-old woman from Hebei, who upon meeting a foreigner quickly lifts her shift to show an angry red scar left from what she alleges was hospital malpractice.
Some petitioners said they might try to take advantage of the designated protest spaces in three Beijing parks. But they are concerned that it could turn out to be a ruse.
Protesters are required to file for a permit five days in advance, listing the names of prospective attendees, the topic and the language of any banners they might bring.
“We might try to go. But we worry it is a trap -- just another trick to get us to go home,” said petitioner Wang Lijun.