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V. Abuses Against Petitioners in Beijing

The lack of the right to redress, the endemic problems of corruption and conflicts of interest in local governments, and the real threat of retaliation against complainants drive many petitioners to take their cases to Beijing. Once they reach Beijing––usually at great effort and expense––petitioners often face serious abuses. 

In response to the lack of redress, growing numbers of petitioners have mounted protests in Beijing. Petitioners prominent in Beijing protests have been imprisoned, sometimes simply for applying for protest permits. Many other petitioners live in a petitioners’ village in Beijing, a squalid shantytown where they lack access to basic medical care and education for their children.

While the regulations adopted on May 1, 2005 specifically prohibit retaliation, petitioners report that security personnel have continued to attack and detain them since that date. Provincial authorities send security officers to Beijing to seize petitioners often by force, or to frighten them away from exercising their legal right to petition. Petitioners report that Beijing police ignore these violent assaults. In some cases they actually turn petitioners over to provincial security officers to be arrested.

Once detained, many petitioners are simply taken back to their home province and released. However, some are detained without trial in local prisons or in reeducation through labor camps. Some petitioners who are taken home also face the risk of violent retaliation there.

This kind of retaliation against petitioners is widespread and systematic, and is conducted with the awareness and even the passive participation of Beijing security personnel. The problem is also well-documented in China: According to the CASS survey in 2004, over 50 percent of petitioners had been beaten by an official, over 40 percent had family members who had been beaten by officials, over 53 percent had been beaten by thugs hired by officials, and over 50 percent had been detained or imprisoned. Nineteen percent had been sentenced to reeducation through labor.132

While the new regulations aim to end retaliation, the system of provincial responsibility for petitioners in Beijing encourages retaliation. Despite the new regulations, there have been no reports of efforts by Beijing authorities to investigate retaliation against petitioners when it happens in Beijing, or to hold provincial authorities accountable for retaliation. Rather, petitioners told Human Rights Watch that Beijing police refused to answer calls to the police emergency line by petitioners or to intervene when they saw provincial security officers beating or detaining petitioners.

China’s government, while increasingly decentralized, is still a unitary and hierarchical system. Decisions about provincial resources are largely made in Beijing, and directives or statements issued by central government or Party authorities still, at least formally, have the force of law. Provincial Party secretaries, who wield power comparable to or greater than that of provincial governors, are appointed and dismissed on the orders of authorities in Beijing.

In an effort to press local officials to resolve cases at the local level, provincial and national authorities have passed stringent rules that mete out punishments to officials from regions where there are many petitioners. Authorities from regions with large numbers of petitioners who travel to Beijing face official criticism and suspension. Some provinces impose disciplinary measures on officials who govern regions from which there are any petitioners at all.133 During especially sensitive periods, such as major holidays or national political conferences (the 2008 Olympics will be one of these), Beijing police issue circulars ordering provincial and local authorities to handle all petitioning matters in order to ensure that there are no petitioners from their regions in Beijing.134 This system creates an incentive for provincial authorities to threaten and detain petitioners in order to preserve both the reputations of their provinces and their own individual careers.

Because national authorities have so much power over the careers of provincial authorities, provincial and local officials often detain, beat, and intimidate petitioners in order to protect themselves from criticism by their superiors.

A. The “Retrievers”

   In Beijing, retrievers (jiefang renyuan) wait across the street from petitions offices to
           forcibly return petitioners home.
                © 2005 Private

Petitioners told Human Rights Watch that provincial and local authorities send “retrievers” [jiefang renyuan] to Beijing to either discourage people from their province from petitioning, or to detain them and bring them back.135 In many cases, arrests are conducted with the assistance of Beijing police. These arrests are often carried out with violence. After they are taken back to the home province, many petitioners are arbitrarily detained without trial in facilities where they face the risk of torture and the certainty of lengthy sentences of forced labor.

Most petitioners who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that while a few retrievers who detained them wore police uniforms, the majority wore street clothes and did not identify themselves, perhaps in order to avoid jurisdictional conflicts with Beijing police or to prevent petitioners filing complaints about police abuse. Many Chinese police bureaus hire untrained civilians to assist in police work.136 Activists familiar with the issue, however, said that most retrievers were probably police officers in plain clothes.137 One petitioner told Human Rights Watch:

Both times that I got beaten up it was by people wearing street clothes. I recognized them [as police officers] both times, [and I asked them], ‘Why are you taking me?’ They said, ‘To stop you petitioning. We’ll resolve your problem.’138

Some petitioners said that their provinces’ retrievers worked out of either guesthouses or the Beijing offices of provincial governments, and were rotated through Beijing for a month at a time.139

In some cases, retrievers approached petitioners quietly, promising petitioners that if they left quietly, the retrievers would help in resolving their cases at the local level.140 In other cases, they offered bribes or other incentives.141 A Liaoning petitioner said he was offered a bribe to stop petitioning:

The director of the Legal Committee came to talk to me. He said, ‘About this matter of yours, we’ll give you 50,000 RMB [U.S.$6,120].’

I said, ‘What money is this, where does it come from?’

He said, ‘It’s from the Public Security Bureau.’

I said, ‘Can I take this as an acknowledgement that they were in the wrong?’

He said, ‘We’ll just give you the money, and then you can stop petitioning.’

I said, ‘I won’t take your money. You need to admit you were wrong.’142

However, petitioners say they are more often beaten than bribed.

Petitioners report that retrievers not only use violence and excessive force in the process of detaining them, but that they also lie in wait and use violence and threats to frighten petitioners away from even approaching government offices. Retrievers wait on the steps in front of government offices where petitioners submit their complaints, such as the National Office of Letters and Visits, the State Council, the Supreme Court, and others. Petitioners said that retrievers listened for the accents of their home provinces to identify them, or approached petitioners to ask which province they were from. On one occasion, a couple who attempted to petition said they were intercepted by retrievers from their province who promised to help translate from their local dialect into Mandarin; instead, the retrievers detained and beat them.143

More commonly, petitioners reported that retrievers asked which province they were from and then simply began to beat them.144 Several petitioners reported being ambushed by gangs of retrievers from their province outside of government offices. Mr. and Mrs. Lee, a rural couple in their sixties, reported a typical instance. As they walked down the street toward the State Council petitions office,

Thirty to forty people surrounded us and asked us where we were from. Before we even opened our mouths, they started to hit us. Over twenty people began hitting my husband. They stomped his body here [indicating left ribs]….They knocked me down, too. Every time I’d try to get up, they’d kick me back down. This happened three or four times. It was raining, and my poncho was soaked with water.145

Beatings are said to be especially common in the run-up to or during major political conferences. Hua, a Liaoning petitioner, said:

Many people have been beaten. Once I saw a guy being beaten by four people, and he was trying to crawl away….This was right before the Two Meetings. They were all wearing street clothes, or uniforms that they had pulled off the IDs and markers on their epaulets.146

In unusual instances, retrievers actually beat petitioners inside national government offices, while security guards look on. Hua recalled:

I was at the central Office of Letters and Visits, and I went up to the Liaoning window. Strangely, I noticed that all the petitioners were standing around and were afraid to go up to the window…so I went up, and they shut the window. Three people were standing there and they saw my materials. 

One of the three people asked me where I was from. I said, ‘Where are you from? Who are you?’ If you want information from me, you should give it first, right? The person dressed in plain clothes said, ‘I’m a policeman.’ Then these three people started hitting me. They hit me on the head, the body, the legs, they used their hands to hit me. There was no confidentiality in that office.147 

Another petitioner reported being beaten and threatened in Beijing by thugs sent from his home province, Heilongjiang:

I and another person were staying in the basement of the Chaoyang hospital. In the middle of the night on June 2, 2004, five people burst into the room where we were staying and attacked us. We were beaten. They stole our belongings, including 350 RMB [U.S.$43], and told us, ‘We’re going to kill you—stop petitioning.’148

Often, petitioners say, retrievers use force to get petitioners into cars and drive them back to the home province. Some said they were simply driven back to the home province, or given bus tickets to return.149 Many immediately return to Beijing to continue petitioning, as one petitioner explained:

I’ve been arrested twice since I got to Beijing….Each time, they held me for fifteen days and then sent me back to Ningxia….Each time, I just come back to Beijing—what else can I do?150

The use of excessive force in the process of arrest violates Chinese law. Article 22 of China’s police law prohibits the inflicting of “bodily punishment” by police.151 International standards are more specific: the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials stipulates that “law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”152

The beatings and abuse described by petitioners fail both Chinese and international standards, and also constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory, and the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which China is a party.153

For some, the cycle of retaliation and petitioning has continued for so long that they have begun to fear for their lives. A Henan petitioner said:

They’ve sent me back to Henan more than ten times, but I keep coming back. This problem has never been resolved, and I don’t dare to meet with the local government anymore. I almost never even leave the petitioners’ village, I only came out to meet with you. I can’t do anything anymore.154

The Impact of the May 1 Regulations

In the weeks leading up to May 1, 2005, police cracked down on petitioners, detaining hundreds in Beijing and Shanghai.155 After promulgating new regulations on May 1, the Ministry of Public Security issued public statements calling on police to resolve petitioners’ cases at the local level and reported that many had done so. Petitioners interviewed for this report, however, said that the new regulations did not improve their situation and reports indicate that crackdowns against petitioners in Beijing and Shanghai have continued.

For example, during the Human Rights Watch research trip to Beijing, which took place after the regulations had gone into effect, police rounded up a group of over three hundred petitioners gathered in front of the Communist Party Discipline Committee and took them to the Majia building. According to one of the detainees, police sorted detainees by province. They told the detained petitioners that retrievers from their provinces would come to pick them up, but instead released them after twenty-four hours.156

Petitioners reported that retrievers did not leave Beijing after May 1. Instead, they simply found new perches across the street from the gates to government offices. As Cai, a petitioner, said:

There are actually more retrievers now than there used to be. They used to all stand at the gates. But there’s a big street, and alleys off to the side. They just moved across the street and stand on the sides.157

Another petitioner confirmed this:

Since May 1…[the retrievers] are not near the gates, they park farther away, scattered all over the place. Mostly they are on Yongdingmen [Road] opposite from the two [main] petitions offices…. They try to trick people now. They say, ‘Come back home, we’ll sort it all out.’ But how can they sort it out? We are complaining about them, they are the source of the problem. How can they resolve it?158

The photograph, taken after May 1, 2005, shows retrievers sitting across the street from lines of petitioners waiting to enter government offices.

Petitioners who spoke to Human Rights Watch generally expressed skepticism with the new regulations. Mrs. Lee commented, “The new law…has no effect on the retrievers at all. It has nothing to do with them.”159

Case Study: “They did all this to keep me from petitioning”

Ms. Kang, a rural woman from Jilin province, walks with crutches because she lost the use of her feet beaten by police. She is forty-eight years old, and her long hair, streaked with grey, is pulled back in a ponytail. She is soft-spoken, with a gentle smile.

A friend explains that her 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. I’m a vegetarian so I don’t eat meat…

After I left, I continued to complain. I went home and my daughter was with the police. I had to write and then they let her go.

I went back to Beijing and complained again….I was trying to block [Premier] Zhu Rongji’s car and give him my petition. The policemen grabbed me….At the station they wrestled me down and put my arms behind my back. I screamed, ‘Help me! Help me!’ but no one cared. Everyone there is paid off…

They sent me back to labor camp for three years….When I woke up I was in the Liaoyuan women’s reeducation through labor camp. My clothes had been cut off with a knife, and they had cut my hair.

[In labor camp], they wouldn’t give you time to do anything….I slept on the fourth floor and worked on the third floor….We had to go up the stairs and down the hall and then back downstairs to get to the dining hall to eat. But they would only give us twenty-five minutes, and if you were late they would beat you. My legs didn’t work anymore, and so I had to crawl and drag myself all the way up and all the way back down again.

I am a vegetarian and I don’t eat meat, so I went on hunger strike. On the tenth day of the hunger strike, they said they were afraid I would die. They sent me to the hospital….In the hospital, they put me in a room and covered all the windows so I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t see anything….They strapped me to a bare bed frame for two to three days. They put shackles on my hands and feet. I would lose consciousness and wake up and look at my hands and feet, and they were so big and red….The bed was too small, and it was metal, so it was up against the top of my head. I couldn’t take it.

If you moved, the feeding tube would move and you would start to throw up. It was very painful….My throat got swollen to the point where they couldn’t insert the feeding tube. They eventually did insert it, though, at which point it cut me and I started vomiting. They did all of this to keep me from petitioning….

There was this boy there, barely graduated from the police academy, and he wanted me to die. I asked him to give me the newspaper he was reading. He just said, ‘Do you know where you are? You are here to be punished.’

Eventually, Ms. Kang’s health deteriorated to the point where her family was notified that she likely was going to die. When they came to visit her, “they didn’t recognize me.” Her eldest daughter then wrote letters to government officials that led to her release after six months of her three-year sentence.

Her family was charged for the cost of her hospital stay.

Ms. Kang has two daughters. One is in college, and the other is ten years old. Officials put the younger daughter into state custody for a period, but have since released her to the care of her father. Ms. Kang does not weep when she describes her experiences in prison, but when she talks about her family she becomes upset:

My daughter is ten years old and she doesn’t laugh anymore….I talked to my oldest daughter on the phone recently, and she said, ‘Ma, you have to be careful….they’re looking for you in Beijing, and they still want to grab you. If they get you again, they’ll kill you.’ She tells me not to go home, because they’ll grab me as soon as I get there.

Families should be together for the holidays. You know, in China, the Lunar New Year is an important holiday, but these past four years, we haven’t been able to eat the holiday meal together even once.

I live in hiding now – even [the friend who brought me here] doesn’t know where I live. Last week, I almost got arrested by the Jilin police after the Beijing police told them where I lived.

Will I continue to petition? I have to continue. I can’t not continue.160

B. Arbitrary Detention of Petitioners Without Trial

Petitioners report that often they are detained without formal charges or trials. Some are formally charged and tried for “disturbing public order.”161 Many end up in China’s notorious reeducation through labor (laodong jiaoyang or laojiao) system. There have been reports that local government officials sentence some petitioners to psychiatric institutions.162

Chinese law gives police broad latitude––without judicial authority or review––to detain suspects for lengthy periods. Ren, a sixty-one year old farmer from Henan, described her detention without charges:

They took me to the detention center and I asked them what I had done. The officers said, ‘You’ve broken no law. You’ve done nothing illegal. This is to stop you from petitioning.’ I said, ‘I won’t go!’ So they dragged me, they twisted and pulled my left arm and forced me into the detention center.163

Mr. and Mrs. Du from Shandong, who are petitioning about their son’s death in police custody, reported that they were each sent back twice to Shandong to be detained. Once, they were both detained without charges; on another occasion, Mr. Du was charged with insulting a police officer when he told the officer, “You are being unreasonable.”164

Another petitioner reported that after she complained to the police that her husband and two neighbors gang-raped her, she was charged with making false accusations [wugao] and sentenced to a year in prison.165 A Henan petitioner observed that there were a number of people petitioning in Beijing from her county, and added, “There are still seventy or eighty people in that [local] detention center [where I was detained], and they are all there for petitioning.”166

Local detention facilities range from very basic jails in the local police station, to larger detention facilities. In a few provinces, authorities have established facilities specifically for detention of petitioners:

I’ve been detained many times. The shortest was for eight days, the longest was a month and a half. I was just held, [usually] there were no charges. But [in 2004] I was sent to the ‘petitioners’ custody and repatriation center’ in Harbin. There were about two or three hundred people detained there….I was detained for creating a social disturbance….I was beaten several times….There was no one in that detention center who had not been hit.167

Chinese officials often engage in preventive detentions, placing activists around the country under formal or informal house arrest in advance of major holidays or meetings in Beijing.168 A petitioner who had pursued his case in Beijing for many years said that he was placed under house arrest for a month around October 1, China’s National Day, a time when many petitioners descend on Beijing to pursue appeals. He said:

I was kept in my house for one month. The police came to my house and from September 17 to October 17 they kept me there…Go to work? Of course I couldn’t go to work! I couldn’t go anywhere. I could go out to the market to buy food, but they came with you. They even went to the bathroom with you. I am not kidding.169

Reeducation Through Labor

Sentences of reeducation through labor (RTL)––made by police with no judicial recourse––are often used to punish petitioners for their activities.170 According to the Ministry of Public Security, reeducation through labor is an administrative method of reform used to change offenders to people who obey and respect the law through compulsory labor. It was established in 1957 as part of the government’s campaign to reform citizens who commit minor offenses through “education.”171

However, the recipient of a reeducation through labor sentence has no right to a hearing, counsel, or any kind of judicial review. Sentences are often meted out by local police bureaus.

Conditions in reeducation through labor camps are harsh and the work load heavy. Prisoners work in mines or brick factories or do heavy agricultural labor.172 Liu Renwen estimates that there are over 310 institutions for reeducation through labor in China, and over 310,000 people detained in reeducation through labor camps.173

Under the current system, people can be detained up to three years, which can be extended by another year based on the prison authorities’ judgment. In practice, some people can be detained longer. Said one petitioner:

I was sentenced to reeducation through labor. When my case went up to a more senior county official [for review], he said, ‘Lock him up until he dies.’174

He spent ten months in RTL, then his family negotiated his release.

Petitioners who had been in RTL camps told Human Rights Watch that beatings were common, especially while inmates were working. Ms. Kang, a petitioner from Jilin province, said:

We worked eighteen hours a day making children’s toys to export to Japan. If you worked too slowly, you were hit and insulted.175

Mr. Jiang, a petitioner from Shanxi, was forced to labor binding books:

We had to bind the books one page at a time and get each page just right. If you did it wrong, they would hit you across the back or shoulders with a cattle prod.176

Two petitioners reported that they were force-fed after they went on hunger strikes to protest conditions.177 One reported being shackled for minor infractions, such as wearing socks in cold weather or using hot water to shower.178

Several petitioners reported that the longest sentences and worst treatment were meted out to members of the banned meditation group, Falungong, many of whom also petition in Beijing.179 Kang reported that of the roughly one thousand detainees in her labor camp in Jilin, most were Falungong practitioners.180 The government’s campaign against the group has been so thorough that even long-time Chinese activists are afraid to say the group’s name aloud. One Beijing petitioner said:

Petitioners are usually locked up directly. But the worst is [she whispers] Falungong. They have terrible treatment, not like the others. There was one sixty-nine year old lady [in prison with me] who had lost her right hand in a farming accident, and she was sentenced to two and a half years—for what? For trying to push a letter through a gate.181

RTL camps suffer from overcrowding, with inadequate food, water, and no heat in winter. Ms. Kang described the conditions:

There were eight people to a cell sleeping in bunk beds. Was it clean? Of course! We were being reeducated! They made us clean the floor on our knees.

Lights in the cells were left on twenty-four hours a day. We were paid two mao a day, six yuan [$U.S. .75] a month. Prices in the camps were inflated; a ground mat that would have cost seven mao outside was priced three yuan in the camp. If your family visited, you had to buy a meal that cost fifty yuan. But you knew you weren’t paying for the food, you’re buying time with your family.

In the camps, people used the toilet in threes. On some days, the labor was so intense that you weren’t allowed to leave to go to the toilet. In very busy times, we would only get three hours of sleep.182

The ICCPR guarantees all persons the right to a fair trial and to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.183 Article 9(4) provides that “Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that the court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention...”184 The U.N. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention also requires that persons “not be kept in detention without being given effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a judicial or other authority. A detained person shall have the right to defend himself or to be assisted by counsel as prescribed by law.”185 The reeducation through labor system violates these and other provisions of international law. It removes the presumption of innocence, involves no judicial officer, provides for no public trial, and makes no provision for defense against the charges.

The ICCPR also prohibits forced labor. Article 8 states that “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labor.”186 While article 8 permits convicted criminals to be required to work as part of their punishment,187 detainees in reeducation through labor camps have not been convicted of a crime in a court of law and should therefore be excluded from this provision. Moreover, international standards on the treatment of detainees demand that work undertaken be to their benefit. According to the U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners:

Conditions shall be created enabling prisoners to undertake meaningful remunerated employment which will facilitate their reintegration into the country’s labor market and permit them to contribute to their own financial support and that of their families.188

China is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and has ratified twenty of the 100 active ILO conventions on labor standards. In June 2002 China’s only legally-recognized trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, was elected to the Governing Body of the ILO.189

In 1998 the International Labor Conference approved a Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Article 2 of the Declaration states that all members, even if they have not ratified the conventions in question, have an obligation as ILO members to realize fundamental rights in the conventions including the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor.190 ILO Convention 29 defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Certain categories of persons are exempted from the ban on forced labor, but detainees, as opposed to persons convicted and sentenced by a court, are not among them. Regardless, even for those exempted from the ban on forced labor, according to article 12 of Convention 29, there is a sixty day limit per twelve months for compulsory labor.191

C. The Role of Beijing Police

Because the Chinese government believes that the growing flood of petitioners in Beijing poses a significant social order problem for the city, Beijing police and government security guards have shown increasing interest in having removed petitioners from the city. Petitioners report that Beijing security officers have often not interceded when they are attacked by retrievers, and that they ignore calls for help from petitioners.

As crowds of petitioners can rise to five or six hundred in front of a government petitions office on any given day, petitioners are often rounded up en masse by Beijing police. They are then taken to a detention facility in Beijing known as the Majia building, where they are detained for a short period until they are either released without charges, or turned over to retrievers. Explained one petitioner:

It used to be that people could go to petition, present their statements, wait in line, get numbers, and wait to be called up. Now they take down your name and identity number and what province you’re from, and drag you to the Majia building on South Number Four Ring Road. They can detain you there for a year, six months, a year and a half. Sometimes they call up police from your province to come and get you.192

Some petitioners reported being severely beaten by provincial retrievers while they were in detention in Beijing. A Henan petitioner told Human Rights Watch that Henan police seized him and took him to the Majia building, where they broke his fingers, leaving them permanently damaged.193

A woman from Jilin province who is partially disabled and walks with crutches said:

I was trying to block [Premier] Zhu Rongji’s car to give him my petition and the policemen grabbed me….I said, ‘The Communist Party has a constitution that protects my rights!’ There were five or six men. At the station, they wrestled me down and put my arms behind my back. I screamed, ‘Help me! Help me!’ but no one cared. Everyone there is paid off.194

Petitioners also say that Beijing police and government security guards also stand by passively as retrievers beat and threaten them, ignoring their calls for help.195 Mr. and Mrs. Gao, the Shandong couple who were beaten on the street in front of the State Council petitions office, told Human Rights Watch what happened after the beating:

I had hurt my leg and I dragged myself to the State Council because I couldn’t walk. My husband’s face was covered in blood, my umbrella was broken, and he could not even stand up straight because he had broken one of his ribs. I called out for help to the security guard who was [at the guard post] right inside the gate. He told us to go away.

I said, ‘How can I go away? I can’t even walk—my leg is broken!’ I asked him to call 110 [the police emergency number] but he didn’t. As soon as we got close to the State Council, the retrievers ran off. I told the guard, ‘You are the highest State Council, you cannot refuse to help me!’ I was yelling so loud that the whole street could hear me. The security guard said, ‘Stop yelling!’…We got to the hospital.196

In other cases, petitioners reported to Human Rights Watch that they called 110, the police emergency number, to report that they were being attacked. But once police knew the callers were petitioners, they refused to intercede. Said one petitioner:

I was beaten up at the Communist Party Central Discipline Committee [office]. I called 110 and said, ‘I’m being beaten and taken to Liaoning, I’m in the procuratorate’s car.’

It was three people…and they were all wearing street clothes….These guys said, ‘You’re still complaining!’ They looked in my bag and pulled out [my documents] and said, ‘Who will look at those?’ They forced me into the car. I said to them, ‘You’re violating my human rights, this is against the law.’ They said, ‘What law, what are you talking about?’

The police I called finally came, but they couldn’t see me, and they called me back on my cell phone to ask where I was. I said, ‘I’m in the car!’ I started struggling with the door handle, and the [retrievers] were trying to stop me opening the door. I rolled down the window and started shouting.

The police looked right at me! They said on the phone, ‘No, we don’t see you anywhere,’ and left. They said on the phone, ‘You’re a petitioner, right?’ They saw me and they walked away.197

According to one Beijing activist, a lawyer working with petitioners has recently filed a lawsuit with the city charging that police routinely ignore 110 calls from petitioners.198

Beijing police have also reportedly used excessive force in the process of detaining petitioners who are Beijing residents. Bao, a longtime petitioner, reported mistreatment of a petitioner in front of the Beijing City People’s Congress building:

This old lady, it was her first time petitioning, and the cops pulled her and yelled at her, and when she went home her head was bleeding. She called me and said she had no money to go to the hospital and get it taken care of. We felt terrible, because we had no money for her. I said to her, ‘You have to see the doctor, one way or the other.’ The next day she and I went [to the hospital] together. We gathered 2,000 RMB [about U.S.$255]. I got really angry.

So the day after, I went and told [other petitioners] about it, and I said, ‘This is terrible mistreatment of the old hundred names [common people].’

Another petitioner reported that she was slapped during an interrogation by a district police chief in Beijing, and when she opened the door of the room to call for help, the station chief came in and also began to beat her.199

Case Study: “I’m going to tell the national leaders what happened to me”

The petite, soft-spoken thirty-nine-year-old woman from Henan has just arrived in Beijing, and she shows signs on her face and clothes of having slept on the streets the past few nights. “I have to sell newspapers on the side of the road,” she explains. “My feet are swollen and hurt all day.” She carries a cloth knapsack with her clothes and belongings. She is deferential, speaks quickly and smiles apologetically when she becomes confused or is interrupted by others.

I was married by force [to a man I had known for one week] in 2000. I tried to leave my husband and he wouldn’t let me. The day after, two people came home with him. They ripped my clothes off and raped me. It was my husband and two of our neighbors.

I complained, and the police detained him for a few days. Then they let him go….I think he paid a bribe. I left him over four years ago, and he still lives there.

After I started petitioning, the police detained me instead. I was in Beijing, and the retrievers came and talked me into going back. When I went back with them, they put me in jail. They said it was a detention pending investigation….I was detained this way on two occasions for several months, each time.

The third time was in July 2004. I was at the National Office of Letters and Visits…and [the retrievers] came and talked me into going back. They took me to the guesthouse [where they were staying]. They said if I went back, they would take care of my problem locally. But when we got [to Henan], they dragged me into the county jail. For making ‘false accusations’ against my husband, I was sentenced to one year in prison.

She gives Human Rights Watch a few documents: her statement, neatly handwritten by someone else, with her red thumbprint on it in place of a signature; a letter from a lawyer at a university legal clinic in Beijing supporting her claim; and a court sentencing document stating that because she was married to one of her attackers, the gang rape was not a real rape, and thus she is convicted of making “false accusations” [wugao] against her husband, and sentenced to a year in prison.

She goes on to describe conditions in the local prison, where ten women shared a cell:

They shackled my hands and feet. The first time it was because the weather was cold, and we had to go outside [to work], so I put on socks. They yelled at me and put me in shackles.

The second time, it was because I used hot water to shower. No one else showered with hot water. They shackled me for twelve days.

The third time, it was because I was washing clothes all day and I was tired, so I rested for a while. They shackled me for two days.

The fourth time it was 6:30 in the morning, and the sky was light, and people were singing because they couldn’t sleep. They were Falungong people singing, and I sang along with them. I’m not Falungong, but I joined in the song. [The guards] asked me if I had started them singing, I said that I hadn’t, I just joined in. So they chained my hands and feet, like this [demonstrates]. Four men held me down to shackle me. I was shackled for seven days.

The fifth time I went two days without food, so they chained my hands and feet, because I went on hunger strike.

They made me sign a confession. They forced me to sign. They said if I didn’t sign, I couldn’t leave.

I am a victim. My family doesn’t understand me. I’m alone. I’m not even divorced, so no one cares [that my husband organized a gang rape].

In May, I got out of that jail. I just got to Beijing two days ago. I came on my own. They wouldn’t give me my backpack back at the jail. My keys, some money, my ID card, my phone, my umbrella, a lot of things were all in there, and they wouldn’t give it back to me. So I came back here to petition….I’m going to tell the national leaders what happened to me.200

D. Violations of the Right to Freedom of Assembly

As the number of petitioners in Beijing has grown, petitioners from different provinces have begun to compare their experiences. Some have organized mass protests about their treatment.

China’s constitution, as well as international law, guarantees the right to freedom of assembly. However, in practice the right to freedom of assembly is severely limited in China, with applications to assemble arbitrarily denied and protests routinely broken up by force. This, too, has been the experience of many petitioners and activists working with petitions.

In the wake of the June 4, 1989, massacre of protesters in and around Tiananmen Square, China passed a “Law on Assemblies, Marches and Demonstrations” (Jihui youxing shiwei fa) that sets out a detailed permit procedure for anyone wishing to hold a public protest of any kind.201 The law stipulates that protest organizers should file an application within five days of the proposed demonstration describing the “purpose, methods, chants, slogans, numbers of people, numbers of automobiles, types and numbers of sound systems, start time, location (including start and finish locations), and names, occupations and addresses of contact people and people in charge.”202 According to the law, police are required to respond with approval or refusal within two days.203

The May 1 regulations prohibit petitioners from engaging in illegal assembly in front of government offices, but provide no more clarity than the Law on Assemblies about just what constitutes an illegal assembly. An official publication advising potential petitioners about their responsibilities under the new regulations strongly advises against spontaneous protests and points out that the basic rights of Chinese citizens to organize lawful protests are protected by the Law on Assemblies, Marches, and Demonstrations.204

Petitioners and activists who have attempted to apply for permission to demonstrate report that their requests are routinely refused or go unanswered. Protests in cities other than those in which the organizers are formally registered as residents are prohibited, making it illegal for people from outside of Beijing to organize protests in the national capital.205

In practice, however, police do not often prohibit protests. According to government figures, in 2004 there were approximately 74,000 demonstrations around the country.206 Given the plethora of social problems in a quickly evolving society, the government and Party appear to feel the need to allow public protests as a pressure release valve for public grievances. The problems for petitioners and others who take to the streets to protest is that a charge of illegal assembly can always be laid on individuals or groups particularly disliked by local officials, making it unclear what is permissible and what is not.

Jailing of Individuals for Applying for Permission to Protest

In several cases, police have simply arrested people for applying for a protest permit. The Beijing police have even retaliated against some activists just for filing applications to protest. Says one activist working with petitioners:

There have been many applications for protests….They never get a formal response, but they sometimes get arrested [on other charges] as a result of their applications for protest permits.207

Ye Guozhu is one of the most prominent activists jailed for attempting to apply for a protest permit. The Ye family is becoming a petitioning dynasty. Ye’s brother, Ye Guoqiang, attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the Jinshui river near Tiananmen Square to protest his family’s forcible eviction from their Beijing home to make way for Olympics-related construction. Ye Guoqiang was arrested and sentenced to two years for disturbing social order for attempting suicide in public as a form of protest.208 His family was left homeless by the eviction. After this, Ye Guoqiang’s brother, Ye Guozhu, became a prominent petitioner on forced evictions cases in Beijing.

In August 2004, Ye Guozhu joined with Tianjin-based activist Zheng Mingfang, lawyer Ni Yulan, and others to apply for permission to hold a 10,000-person march in September. Police detained Ye Guozhu three days later.

An activist who attempted to attend Ye Guozhu’s trial reported that he was kept at home by state security agents. He reported what he later heard about the trial:

Aside from me, another guy was put under house arrest. Over one hundred people went to the court door and all wanted to go in and hear the trial, but the court [staff] wanted each person to register their name and address. All of them registered. Then the court called the local police station of each person’s home to come and get them, so over a hundred cop cars came to get them. Other people watching said, ‘What is going on at the court?’ They sent everyone home.

In court, there should be sixteen seats for family and friends, but the court only gave them two, so Ye Guozhu’s son couldn’t get in. The people charging Ye said that he had been sleeping in front of a hotel, but the guy was homeless [because of his forced eviction], he had nowhere else to live. They said he wore clothes with writing on them about demolition and eviction, but wearing clothes is not illegal. They wouldn’t let [Ye Guozhu] speak at his trial.

Ye has a lawyer who told me that Ye had scars on his wrists. [The prison staff] tried to shave his head,209 but he resisted saying that he hadn’t committed any crime. So they hung him up by his wrists to force him [to let them shave his head].210

In December 2004, a Beijing court sentenced Ye Guozhu to four years in prison.211 In July, Zheng Mingfang was also arrested and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Tianjin on charges of conducting “illegal business.”212

Human Rights Watch has learned of two other cases of persons who appear to have been arrested for filing an application for a protest permit. Li Xiaocheng, a petitioner from Xinjiang, disappeared in August 2004 after filing an application for a mass protest in Tiananmen Square by petitioners. A colleague told Human Rights Watch that Li was approached by police who posed as journalists and instead detained him.213 In June 2005, Li was formally charged with inciting an illegal protest.214 Zhao Xin applied for a permit to hold a memorial march for former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang in winter 2005. When he went to the police bureau to pick up his permit, Zhao was detained for two months.215

In early May 2005, a group of activists working with petitioners applied for a permit to hold an anti-Japan demonstration. Earlier protests against Japan in April 2005 were believed to be state-sanctioned.216 The group reportedly aimed to establish their constitutional right to protest. According to an activist familiar with the case, the Beijing government responded with an official statement that there never had been official protests against Japan. He also said those who applied for the permit were harassed by police.217

Protests by Petitioners

As the result of grievances over the lack of response to petitions and limitations on freedom of assembly, activists working with petitioners say that spontaneous protests in front of petitions offices, foreign embassies, and United Nations buildings have become increasingly common. Police have responded with mass detentions, arrests, and beatings. Petitioners have also reported beatings by security guards responding to spontaneous protests in front of government offices where petitioners gather and wait to file their complaints.

In recent years, the numbers of mass protests by petitioners has grown, though many of the larger protests still go unreported in mainland media.218 Frustrated petitioners have sometimes picked up en masse and taken their protests across town, to other government offices such as Zhongnanhai, the central government compound. Other protests have targeted foreign embassies and the U.N.219 One participant in a protest at the German embassy in November 2004 recalled:

[Local police in Shanxi] said to me, ‘You go wherever you want, take the case up with whomever you want, it’s fine.’ The city said that they’d gotten orders from many levels before [from national authorities] and they were all just wasted paper. They said, ‘You want to go to the U.N., fine! Go complain wherever you want…’ They said I could go anywhere, so we [petitioners] said, fine….So we went to the German embassy….There were over thirty [protesters] there, each with his own problem…As soon as the police saw us, they took us away.220

Another petitioner recalled a spontaneous protest at the central government compound, Zhongnanhai in April 2003:

The protest was all peaceful, there were over one hundred [petitioners] in front of the Zhongnanhai main gate. We weren’t causing any problems. But after they detained me, I was charged with troublemaking and disturbing the work of government offices, and sentenced to two years….After I appealed, they [altered the sentence] to nine months, and I had already been detained nine months. They did it this way so that they wouldn’t have to pay compensation [for false conviction].221

Ou told Human Rights Watch that she and her mother had participated in protests in front of the U.N. offices in Beijing:

There were many, many people there, but no one came out to talk to us. They handcuffed [my mother], but they didn’t arrest her, and there was no arrest warrant. They detained her for five days.222

In 2003, one group of petitioners protested in front of a government-owned company in Beijing. A petitioner reported that she was beaten and kicked by police in the process of detention:

Fifty to sixty people took part, and all of us were seized by police…They all grabbed us and pulled us onto the bus. I said ‘What are you doing?’ and I resisted. Then it started. Over ten police used their feet to kick us. I fell down, and they pulled my hands and dragged me head first….I got scraped all over and my left side was bleeding. They got me in the car and had my hands behind my back, and they struck my head on the floor many times….

They took us to a school [courtyard]. It was very hot. They pulled us in and I…lay on the ground, which was burning hot, and I got confused and passed out….The police officer took me to the hospital and told the doctor that I had been faking being unconscious, and that I was rolling around on the ground and had injured myself in that way….

But the Beijing court said that it didn’t happen and they wouldn’t issue a decision. They won’t take the case. They say there is no proof and they wouldn’t even hear the witnesses.223

In 2003, Sun Shuping applied for a permit for a protest of ten thousand in Beijing. The permit was refused. After Sun and Wu Daming went with a group of petitioners to Tiananmen Square to protest without the permit, they were arrested.224

Some groups of petitioners have also attempted mass suicide in public spots in Beijing, a traditional form of protest in China.225

Many more spontaneous protests erupt in front of offices where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of petitioners wait in line and vie to be heard by petition office staff. In other cities, such as Shenzhen, mass protests by petitioners in front of government offices have disrupted traffic and led to new injunctions against them by local government.226 Says one Beijing activist familiar with the situation of petitioners:

These kinds of protests happen daily, if you can call it a protest. The petitioners try to create dramatic scenes to get attention. There’s often some sort of protest going on. When [staff] people refuse to talk to them, they yell, they get angry.227

Police and security guards often respond with force to these protests, beating protesters and arresting them.228 Says another petitioner:

We all bang on the windows to get attention to submit the petitions, and the guards will just strike out and punch you in the face.229

Petitioners report that one petitioner from Gansu, Wang Yuanshi, may have been beaten to death inside the petitions office of the Supreme Court in November 2004, after petitioners began banging on the window to get attention of staff inside. One witness recalled:

Wang Yuanshi got beaten right in front of the court [petitions office]. They beat him to death….It was the afternoon when he and [another petitioner] went in. They were screaming and we heard them. Then one of [the petitioners] came out and told us they were being beaten by the court security guards. The next morning before it was even light out, we saw his body on the doorstep….There were forty people at the doorway, they all saw it too.230

Petitioners also mentioned that at least one other vocal petitioner has disappeared while petitioning in front of the Supreme Court petitions office.231

Other petitioners commented that loss of life was a serious risk for them. As Ai said:

Two people died already in the past year—we don’t dare to say how, but they were both petitioners. People tell us to pay 1000 percent attention to our safety. We can be arrested at any time, and we can disappear at any time.232

On some occasions, protests have erupted when petitioners refuse to go peacefully with retrievers. One petitioner recalled that:

One time, before the Two Meetings, I saw police trying to take someone away from the Petitioners’ village. I went up to the police car and said, ‘This is not right. He has the right to petition. If he doesn’t want to go with you, he doesn’t have to.’ I asked the petitioner, ‘Do you want to go with them?’ And the petitioner said, ‘I don’t want to go.’ So I told the retrievers to leave. Three other people started to approach in a menacing way, so the retrievers backed down.

I often say to the petitioners, ‘If they take me today, tomorrow it will be your turn.’ But many of them don’t think this way….They still have this hope.233

E. Restrictions on and Harassment of Activists

As the petitioning problem has grown, a network of petitioner defenders and activists has begun to take shape. Some Chinese lawyers and rights activists help petitioners with their cases, advising them on how to file cases and helping them to access social services.

While this kind of assistance is generally permitted, the authorities have refused to allow some activists to register NGOs that would work exclusively on petitioners’ issues. Ye Mingjun, the son of Ye Guozhu, for example, attempted to register a new NGO to work with petitioners in Beijing in April 2005, and was refused registration.234 Registered NGOs also report that their staff members have been questioned and their computers seized and searched. Lawyers who work with petitioners in Beijing and Shanghai are reported to be under close police surveillance.235

Some petitioner activists have been jailed or detained for lengthy periods without formal charges. In November 2004, Li Guozhu, a farmers’ rights advocate, was detained after investigating deadly ethnic clashes in Henan province.236 Before his detention, Li said he had documented 2,670 individual detentions of petitioners around the country that took place between June and July 2004.237 Human Rights Watch has collected information on the cases of sixteen advocates working with petitioners who have been detained or have “disappeared” while doing their work (see Appendix A).

A few university legal aid centers and independent nongovernmental organizations are able to work with petitioners. However, even these have faced harassment and report that they believe they are under close police surveillance. In April, Adam Briscoe, a U.S. student on an internship with the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a Chinese NGO that provides legal advice and humanitarian aid to petitioners, was detained and interrogated. He was released after paying a fine of 500 RMB [about U.S.$60] for not carrying his passport.238 Briscoe told Human Rights Watch:

The police came into the office while I was the only one in there. They took me to the station and questioned me for six hours. They alternately had English and Chinese-speaking cops coming in to question me, and they just kept asking me the same questions in both languages. I just kept saying things like, ‘I love China, I love Beijing’…They brought in a big stack of papers in Chinese to sign, and I refused to sign them. Then they brought in an English-speaking cop who wrote out a confession that said I should have been carrying my passport. They fined me five hundred kuai.…They also searched my home and computer.239 

This was only the first of a series of incidents by the government aimed at forcing the organization to stop its work. Prior to a visit in August 2005 to Beijing by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, the organization’s offices were raided once again.240 The director, Hou Wenzhuo, was placed under house arrest in an apparent attempt to prevent her from speaking to Arbour. Her apartment was surrounded by police and she was told she could not leave. She told a reporter at the time, “I haven't been out yet. I need to get some rest, and make preparations in case they detain me when I try to go out. I have to prepare for this.”241 In October 2005, she was evicted from her apartment. “They told me this evening, absolutely this evening by 6:00 p.m., if I don't get out by that time they're going to do everything to get me out,” she told a journalist.242

In November 2004, eight police officers and a village mayor raided Sanchun Dadi [Spring on the Land], an independent Beijing NGO working with petitioners and other rural activists. They detained Li Guozhu, a volunteer working with the NGO. Witnesses told Li’s family of his arrest, but as of the time of writing police had not yet issued a formal notification of arrest or of his whereabouts. Some friends suspect that his detention was related to Li’s visit to a region of Henan where there had been an ethnic riot and martial law.243 This abduction by officials without acknowledgment of custody would amount to a “disappearance” under international law. 244

In another case a photographer, Sun Xiaodi, a petitioner and activist working on the problem of nuclear contamination of rivers in Gansu, “disappeared” on April 27, 2005. Sun had also documented police abuses of petitioners. His family has not been notified of his arrest.245 His daughter, Sun Haiyan, issued an “Open Appeal” for his return:

My father, Sun Xiaodi, was born in Shanghai in 1955, and was formerly employed at the No. 792 Uranium Mine. In 1989 he began petitioning the central government in Beijing on behalf of the 2,000-plus people who relied on the uranium mine for their living. In all of these years he never stopped. He always believed that justice would win out in the end. On April 28, 2005, my father suddenly disappeared. There has been no word of him since, and we don't know what happened to him. Some informed people have said that the police secretly detained him, but I have inquired with the Public Security Bureau many times, and they always reply that they have no news of Sun Xiaodi.

Petitioning is a basic right of all Chinese citizens, and my father did nothing wrong. My father's disappearance while exercising this right has had a heavy impact on my family. My mother's health was already poor, and my father’s disappearance has delivered a great physical blow to her. She also lost her job because of my father's petitioning activities. My father is the person on whom my mother and I hang all our hopes. My greatest wish is that my father can safely return to the bosom of his family as soon as possible.

As a daughter, I love my father very much; I miss him and think of him constantly. I urgently appeal to all concerned to unconditionally release my father, and I condemn these terrorist activities. Give me back my father, and give him back his freedom.246

Sensitivities about petitioner protests are so high that even those taking photos can find themselves in harm’s way. In March 2005, Michael Reynolds, a journalist with the European Pressphoto Agency, was photographing retrievers beating petitioners in front of the complaints office of the National People’s Congress. He was kicked and beaten by police. Reynolds told a reporter:

I was in front of the complaints office just observing how they were manhandling and harassing petitioners….As soon as I whipped out my camera, they (police) immediately encircled me and began grabbing me and my camera.247

F. Conditions in the Petitioners’ Village

Large numbers of petitioners now live in a shantytown near Beijing’s South Station known as the Petitioners’ village [shangfang cun]. Residents in the village estimate that there are over 10,000 people living there, but there are no official numbers.

Conditions in the petitioners’ village are extremely poor, as has been documented by domestic and international journalists.248 Petitioners and activists working with them reported to Human Rights Watch that the petitioners’ village is closely monitored by police and by paid informers, and that visitors are usually ejected by police within minutes of arrival.249 Many petitioners—farmers and other impoverished, marginalized people—start out with minimal resources to begin with, and their circumstances gradually deteriorate over the years until they end up homeless and mired in poverty. As one lawyer who has worked with many petitioners on their cases noted, “Gradually people spend everything they have and lose all dignity through ceaselessly petitioning.”250 Because they are not legal residents of Beijing, petitioners are unable to access government services, including health care and school, for themselves and their families.251

Many petitioners are short-term residents in the village, coming to Beijing only for a few days to pursue their cases before they return home. Some become long-term or even permanent residents, hiding because they fear for their safety if they return home.252 Mao, a petitioner from Henan, said that he, his sister, and his brother now all live in poverty in the petitioners’ village. Even though they have given up petitioning, the whole family is afraid to return to their hometown because they believe they will be killed by local authorities.253

On arriving in Beijing to pursue their cases, petitioners with some resources may stay at guesthouses near government offices, or in dormitories in the petitioners’ village that charge ten RMB [approximately U.S.$1.25] per night. These facilities may be clean, have relatively new beds, and include communal cooking areas.

        While they wait for their petitions to be addressed in Beijing, petitioners who have the
       economic resources stay in dormitories in the petitioners’ village costing approximately
U.S.$1.25 a day.
© 2005 Private

As they continue to pursue their cases over the years, petitioners often spend their own and their extended families’ resources, borrowing from friends and other family members. Over time, they may no longer be able to afford the nicer dormitories, and relocate to dormitories that charge three to five RMB a night, which contain simpler wooden beds and are less clean.

As their finances dwindle, petitioners are forced to move into cheaper and shabbier accommodations.
© 2005 Private

These rooms are often overcrowded, says an activist:

A room that’s about eightysquare meters will fit twenty people. I used to live there. They have bunk beds, two people in a bunk….It’s a big disaster. You’ve never seen anyplace so messy and disgusting.254

Petitioners who are extremely impoverished, or who become impoverished over eight or ten years of petitioning, are reduced to sleeping on the streets in cardboard boxes or on beds improvised from discarded rags. Those living on the street are unable to access clean water supplies for washing or drinking.255

            After years of futile attempts at redress, some petitioners wind up living on the streets.
            © 2005 Private

Such petitioners say they suffer especially in Beijing’s cold winters. A petitioner named Yang told Human Rights Watch:

Last year, the winter was very hard. Where we live is very basic, we don’t have any money….I’ve been here for eight years, and there hasn’t been a single winter that has gone by where a petitioner hasn’t died from the cold.256

As one woman told Human Rights Watch:

In October 2004, my husband and I came back to Beijing to petition….We two old people had no place to live. Our grandchildren were living in a tent with us, and it was cold. They got injured by the cold.257

Under China’s household registration system (hukou), as non-residents of Beijing petitioners have the same status as other internal migrants in Chinese cities: they are the equivalent of illegal aliens, and are not able to work legally. Some petitioners told Human Rights Watch they made a living by repairing bicycles, selling newspapers, or picking through garbage to find bottles and boxes to sell for recycling.258 Others said they survived by gathering and eating refuse from nearby markets, including vegetables that were left unsold at the end of the day, or cuts of neck meat that butchers sold cheaply. Mrs. Gao explained:

We scavenge for food. We go to the market and gather up the vegetables that are left over. Also, we root around for bottles and other garbage to recycle, and we make at most about five or six yuan [U.S. 60 cents] each day.259

As part of their regular sweeps of petitioners in advance of major meetings, Beijing police sometimes demolish the petitioners’ village, leaving those who escape the mass detentions to weather the cold on the street without any shelter or supplies.260 In two reported instances, officers chased residents out from under a bridge, confiscating their food and belongings.261

Access to government services in China is also based on residency. Only registered residents in a given city are permitted to send children to local schools or obtain medical care from local hospitals and government clinics. The hukou system has “created a rigid social hierarchy that was transmitted across generations, assigning very different entitlements to urban and rural residents.” 262 Because petitioners are generally migrants from other provinces, they are refused care at Beijing hospitals, and are not permitted to send their children to Beijing city schools. Others are refused at private clinics because they cannot afford to pay fees.

It is not clear how many children are living in the petitioners’ village, and how many are long-term or short-term residents. Human Rights Watch obtained a photograph taken in 2005 of several children in the village, including two school-age girls holding a sign that read, “We want to go to school.”

One petitioner, the father of an eleven-year-old in poor health, reported that before the Two Meetings, local officials came to Beijing and offered to pay for his eleven year old son’s school fees if he stopped petitioning. He said, “No one had ever been concerned about that before, but suddenly they were concerned about him.” The day after the Two Meetings ended, however, “I got not one fen. They said ‘Teach him yourself, we don’t care.’”263 This petitioner summed up his situation by observing:

Do not tell me that China has human rights. We are less than dogs. No one protects us. Other people’s children go to school. Do our kids go to school? Who will give our children medicine? Immunizations?

If our kids get sick, we do the best we can. If we cure them, then they are cured. If we don’t, they die. I mean, that’s it. If my son gets sick today, he dies today.264

Case Study: “We will drag this out until you’re dead”

Mr. Ming is forty-one-years old and comes from Shanxi. A former small-town school teacher, he wears glasses and has a scholarly, serious air, speaking with a heavy Shanxi brogue. He begins his account by formally reading from a sheaf of papers that are his handwritten statements, and begins to elaborate from this as he goes along.

At 7:00 p.m. on January 31, 2002, five or six people went to my home. They brought an iron hammer. They came in and said nothing. They weren’t from our village, I had never seen them before, they were thugs. First they hit my wife and my younger brother’s wife in the head with the iron hammer. They were coming for me, but they didn’t know who they were dealing with. My brother attacked another one with a chair, and when it broke, he beat one of them to death with the chair leg….The other thugs ran away. We called 110 to report the attack, and said maybe three people were dead – my brother’s wife, my wife and the thug. In fact, my wife and my brother’s wife were only knocked out.

The police came half an hour later and only hung around for ten minutes….The police station chief came down, and he didn’t take any notes or any pictures. They just noticed that the one guy was dead. The police made no record of what happened, but the next day, the morning after the thugs left town, the police chief came to my house to look for the hammer that the thug left in my house. I said, ‘How do you know about the hammer?’ We hadn’t told them….I said, ‘We were injured, you have to give us some record of this incident….’ They refused.

So we went to the city police, the city government, and the county police, everyone. I did this for two years, and no one cared. They all knew [the village secretary] had [ordered the assault]. But he was a rich man, and he bought a car for the police chief….This man was running the local mine, then he became the village chief and the Party secretary and the representative to the People’s Congress. According to [Chinese law], you can’t hold all those positions one after the other…I challenged his power, and because he gave them the car, they stopped handling my case. Is this why he was attacked in the first place?

In 2004, I came to Beijing [to petition]…. The petitions office in Beijing sent a letter to provincial officials. The letter said… ‘This is a case of retaliation, please handle it.’ The province then sent a letter to the city [the same people who had already retaliated against them] ordering them to do the same.

After twenty days, I got a letter [from the province], and I took it to the city police chief. He said, ‘This case? We’ve handled it plenty already.’ He said to me, ‘You go wherever you want, take the case up with whoever you want. It’s fine. It’s all a waste of paper.’ He said, ‘You want to go to the U.N., fine. Go complain wherever you want. There will come a day when we’ll pick you up and arrest you.’

Over eight months, he has gone back and forth to Beijing, petitioning and receiving letters from national authorities that instructed local authorities to resolve his case.

The second letter I got after petitioning was from the Ministry of Public Security. They wrote to the province. The province said, ‘You are known to us here.’ ….The province said to go to the county. So I went to the county. The county said, ‘You go wherever you want. Later on, we’re going to come and get you.’ I waited two months there for the case to be sorted out. They told me they would sort it out. Finally I gave up, and came back to Beijing….

We used to have money, you know. We weren’t doing badly. I was a math teacher in junior high school for ten years. I’m an educated person. But [the local authorities] said to me, ‘We’ll spend you till you’re poor. You can go back and forth, back and forth, no problem…’

The director of the municipal petitions office [in my city] said, ‘We’ll drag it out till you’re dead [women tuosi ni]. Once you die, the problem is solved.’

He said, ‘If you sue the Communist Party, can you win?’

He shows stacks of slips of paper he has collected over the years, receipts for complaints he submitted to petitions offices in Beijing, and says, ‘These are useless.’265

[132] Jianrong, "Xinfang Zhidu Pipan (Critique of the Petition System)."

[133] Minzner, “Xinfang: An Alternative to the Formal Chinese Legal System,” Stanford Journal of International Law, (publication pending).

[134]Zhonggong lianghui qi, Beijing yanqi shangfang shensu qingyuan [During Central government Two Meetings period, Beijing severely forbids petitioning and appealing],” Dajiyuan, March 20, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 26, 2005); “Lianghui zai ji, Beijing jiaqiang xinfang cuoshi [As Two Meetings near, Beijing strengthens petitioning measures],, February 26, 2005, (retrieved July 26, 2005).

[135] Zhao Ling, “Guonei shoufen xinfang baogao zhuang gaochen zhongshe [First domestic report on petitioning earns high-level attention], Nanfang zhoumo, November 4, 2004; Jim Yardley, “Chinese appeal to Beijing to resolve local complaints,” New York Times, March 8, 2004, p. A3; “The wages of China’s underdogs: More abuse of official power,” Radio Free Asia, December 8, 2004 [online], April 18, 2005); Jehangir S. Pocha, “In struggle to be heard, rural Chinese pack Beijing,” Boston Globe, March 15, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 24, 2005).

[136] Murray Scot Tanner, “Torture in China: Calls for reform within China’s law enforcement system,” Prepared Statement to Accompany Testimony before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), July 26, 2002 [online], (retrieved July 23, 2005).

[137] Human Rights Watch interviews with Wu, Cai, Beijing, 2005; Murray Scot Tanner also notes that local Communist Party leaders sometimes “us[e] the police as a private army” as stated in “Torture in China: Calls for Reform from within China's Law Enforcement System,” Prepared Statement to Accompany Testimony before the CECC, July 26, 2002.

[138] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, Beijing, 2005.

[139] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, Cai, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Beijing, 2005.

[140] Human Rights Watch interviews with Qi and Ming, Beijing, 2005.

[141] Human Rights Watch interview with Ming, Beijing, 2005.

[142] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, Beijing, 2005.

[143] Human Rights Watch interview with Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Beijing, 2005.

[144] Human Rights Watch interview with Qing, Beijing, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[145] Human Rights Watch interview with Mrs. Lee, Beijing, 2005.

[146] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, Beijing, 2005.

[147] Human Rights Watch interview with Pei, Beijing, 2005.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Feng, Beijing, 2005

[149] Human Rights Watch interviews with Hua, Pei, Ou, Mao, and Ren, Beijing, 2005.

[150] Human Rights Watch interview with Gong, Beijing, 2005.

[151] Article 22(4), People’s Republic of China Police Law (Jingcha fa). Promulgated on February 28, 1995, [online] (retrieved November 24, 2005).

[152] United Nations, “Code of Conduct for law Enforcement Officials”, December 17, 1979 [online], (retrieved November 25, 2005), arts 3(a) and 3(b). According to the Code of Conduct, law enforcement officers should use force only when “reasonably necessary” under the circumstances, and the use of force should be proportional to the objective.

[153] Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits torture. Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture (CAT) defines torture as: any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as…intimidating or coercing him…when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. Article 16(1) of the CAT states that: Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. In particular, the obligations contained in articles 10, 11, 12 and 13 shall apply with the substitution for references to torture of references to other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview with Mao, Beijing, 2005.

[155] “Petitioners detained in advance of new law,” Human Rights in China, April 28, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 25, 2005).

[156] Human Rights Watch e-mail and telephone communications with Yu, Beijing, 2005.

[157] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[158] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, Beijing, 2005.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview with Mrs. Lee, Beijing, 2005.

[160] Human Rights Watch interview with Kang, Beijing, 2005.

[161] “Fujian officials take revenge for complaints against them,” Radio Free Asia, September 11, 2004 [online], (retrieved July 26, 2005).

[162] “Endless road to justice,” China Information Center, April 18, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 26, 2005); “Shanfang nu shouru zifen weisui [Female petitioner suffers abuse, fails in suicide attempt], Nanjing shibao, January 28, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 26, 2005); Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[163] Human Rights Watch interview with Ren, Beijing, 2005.

[164] Human Rights Watch interview with Mr. and Mrs. Du, Beijing, 2005.

[165] Human Rights Watch interview with Qi, Beijing, 2005.

[166] Human Rights Watch interview with Ren, Beijing, 2005.

[167] Human Rights Watch interview with Qing, Beijing, 2005.

[168] “Petitioner roundup as NPC meets,” Human Rights in China, March 11, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 25, 2005).

[169] Human Rights Watch interview with Ming, Beijing, 2005.

[170] “Shanghai petitioner Wang Mingqing detained,” Human Rights in China, February 23, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 25, 2005).

[171] Liu Renwen, “Reform of China’s Reeducation through Labor System,” Criminal Policy, (New York: Publishing House of Chinese People’s Public Security University, 2004), excerpt from Ch. 7 published by The Brookings Institution, January 25, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 20, 2005).

[172] “Reeducation through Labor in China,” A Human Rights Watch Campaign Document, [online], (retrieved July 20, 2005).

[173] Renwen, “Reform of China’s reeducation through labor system” excerpt from Ch. 7, published by the Brookings Institution, p. 3.

[174] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[175] Human Rights Watch interview with Kang, petitioner, Beijing, 2005.

[176] Human Rights Watch interview with Mr. Jiang, Beijing, 2005.

[177] Human Rights Watch interview with Kang and Qi, Beijing, 2005.

[178] Human Rights Watch interview with Qi, Beijing, 2005.

[179] For more information on the Chinese government’s campaign against Falungong, see Human Rights Watch, “Dangerous Meditation: China's Campaign Against Falungong”, A Human Rights Watch Report, February 2002, available at

[180] Human Rights Watch interview with Kang, Beijing, 2005.

[181] Human Rights Watch interview with Ai, Beijing, 2005.

[182] Human Rights Watch interview with Kang.

[183] Article 14, ICCPR.

[184] Ibid., Article 9(4).

[185] U.N. Body of the Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 43/173 (1988), Principle 11.1, available at

[186] Article 8(3)(a), ICCPR.

[187] Ibid., Article 8(3).

[188] U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 45/111 (1990), Article 8, available at

[189] International Labor Organization (ILO), Governing Body 284th Session, June 2002, available at

[190] ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998), Article 2, available at
All Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely:
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
(c) the effective abolition of child labor; and
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and

[191] ILO Convention 29 (Forced Labor Convention), Article 12, available at:

[192] Human Rights Watch interview with Qing, Beijing, 2005.

[193] Human Rights Watch interview with Mao, Beijing, 2005.

[194] Human Rights Watch interview with Kang, Beijing, 2005.

[195] Jehangir S. Pocha, “In struggle to be heard, rural Chinese pack Beijing,” Boston Globe, March 15, 2005.

[196] Human Rights Watch interview with Mrs. Lee, Beijing, 2005.

[197] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, petitioner, Beijing, 2005.

[198] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[199] Human Rights Watch interview with Qi, Beijing, 2005.

[200] Ibid..

[201] Zhonghua renmin gongheguo jihui youxing shiwei fa [People’s Republic of China Law on Assemblies, Marches and Protests], ratified by the tenth meeting of the executive committee of the Seventh National People’s Congress, October 31, 1989; in Cao Kangfeng, Wang Xuejun, eds., Xinfang tiaoli fudao duben [Regulations on Letters and Visits Tutorial Reader], (Beijing, Zhongguo fazhi chubanshe, 2005); 412-418.

[202] Article 8, People’s Republic of China Law on Assemblies, Marches and Protests.

[203] Ibid., Article 9.

[204] Cao Kangfeng, Wang Xuejun, eds., Xinfang tiaoli fudao duben [Regulations on Letters and Visits Tutorial Reader], (Beijing, Zhongguo fazhi chubanshe, 2005); p. 342.

[205] Article 33, People’s Republic of China Law on Assemblies, Marches and Protests.

[206] Howard French, “Land of 74,000 Protests (but Little Is Ever Fixed),” New York Times, August 24, 2005.

[207] Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[208] “Two sentenced to jail terms for causing disturbances on Tiananmen Square,” People’s Daily, November 23, 2003;, retrieved July 26, 2005.

[209] Head-shaving marks a person as a convict.

[210] Human Rights Watch interview with Song, 2004.

[211] “China continues crackdown on public intellectuals and activists,” Congressional Executive Commission on China, January 7, 2005;; retrieved July 26, 2005.

[212] “China jails Tianjin petitioner, arrests nineteen protesters,” Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2005.

[213] Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[214] “China charges petitioner who applied to march on Tiananmen Square,” Radio Free Asia, June 24, 2005.

[215] Human Rights Watch e-mail correspondence with Liang, Chinese activist, 2005; Masha Loftus, “CCP pulling the pin from the nationalism hand-grenade,” Epoch Times, April 20, 2005.

[216] Howard French, “Chinese government permits rare protests against Japan,” New York Times, April 17, 2005.

[217] Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[218] “Chinese petitioners protest in Beijing,” Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2004; “Shangqian ming jiefangjun tuiwujunren zai Beijing shiwei qingyuan [Over one thousand retired PLA soldiers protest and present petitions in Beijing],” Radio Free Asia, April 13, 2005; “Peasant advocates hospitalized in clash with officials,” Human Rights in China press release, May 3, 2005.

[219] “Petitioners dragged from gates as China’s leaders hold social justice meeting,” Radio Free Asia, February 23, 2005; “Shangfang shangdao Mei shiguan [Petitioners go to American embassy],” Boxun, July 15, 2005;, accessed July 19, 2005.

[220] Human Rights Watch interview with Yang, Beijing, 2005.

[221] Human Rights Watch interview with Mao, Beijing, 2005.

[222] Human Rights Watch interview with Ou, Beijing, 2005.

[223] Human Rights Watch interview with Ai, Beijing, 2005.

[224] Loftus, “CCP pulling the pin from the nationalism hand-grenade,” Epoch Times; Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[225] “Beijing suicide protesters spoke for thousands,” Radio Free Asia, July 14, 2004,, retrieved July 26, 2005.

[226] Chow Chung-yan, “Restrictions on petitions near government offices,” South China Morning Post, July 24, 2004.

[227] Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[228] Philip P. Pan, “Cabbies can’t find China’s road to justice,” Washington Post, November 15, 2004.

[229] Human Rights Watch interview with Ming, Beijing, 2005.

[230] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005. A second petitioner said he had witnessed Wang being dragged into the building, heard him shouting for help from inside the building, and saw his body lying on the steps of the building the following day. Human Rights Watch interview with Yang, Beijing, 2005. Human Rights Watch contacted another petitioner who said he could confirm this account, but was unable to interview him due to concerns for his safety.

[231] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Wu, Beijing, 2005.

[232] Human Rights Watch interview with Ai, Beijing, 2005.

[233] Human Rights Watch interview with Hua, Beijing, 2005.

[234] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[235] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Wu, and Andy [pseudonym], an American journalist, Beijing, 2005.

[236] “China: Crackdown on Activists Widening,” Human Rights Watch, December 23, 2004, [online]

[237] “Beijing suicide protesters spoke for thousands,” Radio Free Asia, July 14, 2004;, retrieved July 26, 2005.

[238] “U.S. rights worker in China detained and interrogated,” Agence France-Presse, April 13, 2005.

[239] Human Rights Watch interview with Adam Briscoe [real name], Beijing, 2005.

[240] “Chinese Activist Evicted From Flat by Security Forces,” AP, October 1, 2005. (retrieved November 7, 2005).

[241] “Chinese Police Beat Up AIDS Activist During U.N. Rights Visit,” RFA, August 31, 2005. rights, (retrieved November 7, 2005).

[242] “Chinese Activists Evicted From Flat,” Associated Press, October 1, 2005.

[243] Human Rights Watch interview with Wu, 2004.

[244] The newly concluded International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines at Article 2 an enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the State, or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” (retrieved November. 21, 2005)

[245] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[246] “Activist Disappears after Reporting Nuclear Contamination”, Human Rights in China, August 19, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 29, 2005).

[247] “US photographer beaten by Beijing police ahead of parliamentary meeting,” Agence France-Presse, March 3, 2005.

[248] Hu Feng and Jiang Shu, “Xinfang gongpeng [The pinnacle of petitioning],” Oriental Outlook, December 11, 2003, pp. 20-31; Hu Bo, “Beijing shangfang cun shengtai [Ecology of the Beijing petitioners’ village],” Oriental Outlook, December 11, 2003, pp. 36-45; Hannah Beech, “Nothing left to lose,” Time Asia, March 1, 2004,,13673,501040301-593608,00.html accessed April 18, 2005; Yi Ban, “The view beneath the bridge,” China Rights Forum 1 (2004): 56-59.

[249] Because of the security risk to petitioners in the village if they were known to have spoken with a human rights group, Human Rights Watch researchers did not visit the village, but interviewed residents and hired a photographer to document conditions there.

[250] Human Rights Watch interview with Zhou, Beijing, 2005.

[251] Hukou or household registration is a system of residency permits, issued by police, that state where citizens formally reside and that constrain them to accessing state services (medical care, education) in that region.

[252] Human Rights Watch interviews with Kang, Mao, Beijing, 2005.

[253] Human Rights Watch interview with Mao, Beijing, 2005.

[254] Human Rights Watch interview with Cai, Beijing, 2005.

[255] Ibid; Ban, “The view beneath the bridge,” p. 58-59.

[256] Human Rights Watch interview with Yang, Beijing, 2005.

[257] Human Rights Watch interview with Ren, Beijing, 2005.

[258] Human Rights Watch interviews with Hua, Mao, and Qi, Beijing, 2005.

[259] Human Rights Watch interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Beijing, 2005.

[260] Hannah Beech, “Nothing left to lose,” Time Asia, March 1, 2004,,13673,501040301-593608,00.html, retrieved April 18, 2005.

[261] Ban, “The view beneath the bridge,” p. 59.

[262] Institutionalized Exclusion: The tenuous legal status of internal migrants in China’s major cities, Human Rights in China, November 6, 2002; (retrieved July 26, 2005); p. ii. See the Human Rights in China report for a fuller discussion of rights of and abuses against internal migrants in the context of international human rights law.

[263] Human Rights Watch interview with Ming, Beijing, 2005.

[264] Human Rights Watch interview with Yang, Beijing, 2005.

[265] Human Rights Watch interview with Ming, Beijing, 2005.

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