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(Hong Kong) - Thousands of citizens who petition Chinese authorities for the redress of grievances are attacked, beaten, threatened, and intimidated, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Activists and representatives trying to help petitioners are also beaten and arrested.

The 89-page report, “We Could Disappear at Any Time: Retaliation and Abuses against Chinese Petitioners,” is the first in-depth look at the treatment of Chinese citizens who travel to Beijing to demand approval of or answers to their complaints of mistreatment by officials. Research was carried out in China.

“Petitioners open a window into the myriad human rights and social problems in China,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “If one wants to understand unrest in China, just look at what petitioners complain about and what they go through to find justice.”

China’s petitioning system has a long cultural and historical tradition dating to the beginnings of the Chinese empire. Administered through national and local regulations, it allows ordinary people to formally raise grievances about subjects as diverse as police brutality, illegal land seizures, poor infrastructure, and corruption.

In present-day China, petitioners often stage sit-ins in front of Zhongnanhai, the compound where China’s leaders live and work, and try to push petitions into their limousines. Thousands of others throng Beijing’s streets in front of national petitions offices, holding up signs. Their numbers swell during major political events, such as national political conventions or the visits of foreign leaders.

A staggering ten million petitions were filed in 2004, though success appears to be quite rare. A recent study found that only three of two thousand petitioners surveyed had their problems resolved.

“[The police officer] said to me, ‘We’ve handled this matter plenty already. We’ve seen a lot of these letters. They’re all just wasted paper, no use. You can go wherever you want, take the case up with anyone you want. Go to the U.N. if you want!...Eventually, we’ll come and arrest you,’” said one petitioner interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Petitioners, many of them rural people with minimal education or resources, often come to Beijing fleeing local violence and seeking a venue of last resort. Yet while they wait for their petitions to be addressed in Beijing, many are ambushed by groups of plainclothes security officers on the street, beaten, and kidnapped. Many are taken back to their home provinces, imprisoned, and even tortured. A few petitioners who spoke to Human Rights Watch had lost the use of limbs due to torture in detention. The perpetrators of these abuses are usually government employees or agents who act with impunity.

Much of the violence and abuse against petitioners in Beijing emanates from efforts by local officials to stop local residents from going to the capital to complain, out of fear that their own record will be tarnished in the eyes of the national authorities.

Local officials send “retrievers” [jiefang renyuan]—plain-clothes security officers—who attack and intimidate petitioners and force them to return to their home province. Beijing police, in turn, play their part: to quell the threat of rising discontent, they raze the shantytowns where petitioners live in Beijing, round up petitioners, and hand them over to the retrievers, turning a blind eye to the retaliatory violence. Human Rights Watch said that these abuses call for urgent measures to protect petitioners from systematic violence and ill-treatment.

“The stories of abuse we heard—and which we report in the words of petitioners themselves—are chilling,” said Roth. “This kind of heavy-handed treatment angers ordinary people who already have suffered abuses like corruption and police brutality.”

While new regulations on petitioning were issued in May 2005, they appear to have had little effect on restraining the retrievers and their abuses. Touted as a sign of reform, Human Rights Watch said that the new rules have also failed to bring basic fairness to a dysfunctional system.

There is a robust ongoing debate in China about whether to keep or abolish the system. Those who want to do away with the system argue that it is inherently arbitrary and at odds with the protection of human rights and the development of the rule of law. Others suggest it should be overhauled but remain in place, as petitioning offers average Chinese perhaps the only legally sanctioned avenue to raise what, in many cases, are politically-charged grievances.

For many, petitioning offers the illusion of redress while bringing only abuse and poverty. Human Rights Watch said that in a political system lacking accountability to its own citizens, the government and Party often find themselves out of touch with ground realities or the views of ordinary people. With few other channels to raise grievances, and without a free press or the right to freedom of association or assembly, the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party use the petitioning system as a release valve to maintain social stability.

“In a one-party system intolerant of dissent, petitioning is one of the only ways that ordinary Chinese have to air their grievances,” said Roth. “By using or allowing violence to squelch grievances, the authorities are effectively closing off some of the only political space in the country. They should realize that this endangers the very thing they are trying to protect—social stability.”

Appendix: Selected Testimonies from “We Could Disappear at Any Time

Ms. Kang’s case began when her husband, injured in a state-run factory, was unable to collect promised workers’ compensation. Alleging official corruption in management of the factory, Ms. Kang began to petition, and eventually took her complaint to Beijing. In 2002 she was seized there and taken back to Jilin:

[In Jilin], I spent sixteen days in the detention house. They shackled me to a chair by my hands and feet. I couldn’t move at all. Everything was swollen, my hands, my feet. Everything became numb. They beat me and I couldn’t take it. It was so hard. After sixteen days, I was sentenced to reeducation through labor for one year. It was the first month of the lunar new year [roughly, February 2002]…. I was beaten in there four times because I wouldn’t eat….

Mr. and Mrs. Jiang’s saga began when they alleged that officials in their village stole 540,000 RMB [U.S.$66,000] through graft. Mr. Jiang told Human Rights Watch what happened next:

At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of December 30, the electric and phone lines in my house were cut. The village deputy [Communist] Party secretary brought the [thugs] on his motorcycle to my house. The vice secretary was just waiting outside on the motorcycle until the men beat me to a pulp to take him home. He [the vice secretary] gave the men 10,000 yuan [U.S.$1,200] to beat me to death. The village deputy secretary paid them to kill me. They organized it that day over lunch.

Ming, a petitioner from Shanxi who lives in the Beijing petitioners’ village with his eleven-year-old son, said that when he raised public concerns about attempts by the Party secretary of his village to take on multiple conflicting government positions, the Party secretary ordered him killed:

At 7:00 p.m. on January 31, 2002, five or six people went to my house. They brought an iron hammer. They came in and said nothing. They weren’t from our village, I’d never seen them before, they were thugs. First they hit my wife and my younger brother’s wife in the head with an iron hammer. They were coming for me, but they didn’t know who they were dealing with. My brother hit [one attacker] over the head with a chair, and then when the chair broke he beat him to death with the chair leg…

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