The Time Magazine Office of Letters and Visits

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Last Friday a middle-aged couple from Jiangsu province came to our office seeking justice. This is something that happens on a fairly regular basis. A few times a month, sometimes as often as several times in a given week, Chinese people with grievances against the courts, against the police, against their local governments will call the bureau to ask us for help. Often they’re people who have spent years petitioning various official agencies for redress of their grievances.

Petitioning, as an institution, has existed in China in one form or another for centuries. The idea is that citizens (in the old days, subjects) who suffer harm in their hometowns can appeal to higher levels of of the bureacracy to right the wrongs. In a country where courts are still weak and rarely independent of other arms of government, the petition system is there to function like a kind of court of last resort, and a check on official power. Virtually every official organ in China has a “letter and visits” office at which the aggrieved can lodge complaints. The biggest of these offices are in Beijing and huge numbers of Chinese flock to the capital, with sheaves of documents in hand, hoping for intervention from on high. Last year, according to the State Council 30 million people lodged complaints at Letters and Visits offices throughout the country.

The system plays tricks with people’s mind. Sometimes it reminds me a little of the Lottery. The chances of actually winning redress or compensation are tiny–letters and visits offices are hugely overburdened, and moreover often unwilling or unable to intervene with local governments. Over the past few years, the government has even publicized petitioners’ abyssmally low rate of success. But this doesn’t stop people from coming. Maybe part of the attraction is the psychological release that comes from simply having an impartial person listen to your story. Part of it comes, I’d imagine, from a desire to see wrongdoings punished and from the seductive idea of the deus ex machina swooping in to clean up the mess. Television programs about the justice system probably don’t help. When I’m on the road I often watch fictional law-and-order shows about local corruption, good peasants getting squashed, whistleblowers thrown in jail. I’m always struck by how accurately they seem to portray real problems. But I’ve now seen enough of them to know they tend to end the same way, with an upright Party secretary stepping in at the last minute to save the day.

I’ve met a lot of longtime, hardcore petitioners over the years, and many of them keep petitioning even in the face of repeated failures because they can’t believe, they won’t believe, that winning justice is simply impossible. Paradoxically, this conviction often only increases with each failure. One petitioner I know has continued to petition about a dispute over land in her Manchurian village for over 20 years. Her children have grown up living in a tent on the outskirts of Beijing, unable to attend regular school. Sometimes petitioners will spend decades traveling from government office to government office only to have the situation at home change so irrevocably that even if someone were to take pity on them, there’d be no way to get back what they’d lost.

A lot of petitioners believe that if they can get the attention of the foreign media, their cases will be resolved. This belief isn’t entirely without basis. Occasionally, in the past, cases raised by the international media have attracted attention from high level central government officials in Beijing. But this happens very very rarely and even when it does it doesn’t always yield results. The longtime petitioner I know best–who has been repeatedly be sent to mental institutions to keep her from blowing the whistle on local corruption–has had her story told in all of the major Chinese papers, on CCTV and in the New York Times and she’s still out there petitioning. Even after all the publicity, nothing has changed.

Even though I know this, when petitioners calls the office I always feel obligated to listen to their story. Part of this is just journalism. Often the petitioners’ stories offer insights into social issues that we’re trying to better understand or illustrate for our readers. Even more often their experiences show in painful detail how flawed the legal system is and how badly citizens can fare in their relationships with the government. But more often than not, I know I’m probably not going to be able to write a story. We’re not a local paper. Citizen/government disputes are only a part of what we write about and we’re not equipped to sift though the piles and piles of documents these people bring us to piece together the details of their stories. Still, I find I can’t help but take the calls. Sometimes I’m able to refer people to a legal aid center or charity or another journalist who’s working on a story about their particular grievance. Mostly I just listen, take notes and feel helpless.

Sometimes petitioners have completely exaggerated notions of our power. An environmental official from the district government of a small city in Shandong province once asked me if I could call up President Hu Jintao to report his case. The trouble for this Mr. Zhang had started when his boss asked everyone in his office to buy appliances for the boss’ new home. Mr. Zhang refused and as he explained to me over many phone calls and a couple of trips to Beijing, his refusal had cost him not only his job, but his safety. He’d been beaten up every time he’d tried to complain about losing his job. He claimed not to be able to find work anymore and so he had dedicated his life to petitioning. He firmly believed a) that I had Hu Jintao’s direct number and could just call him up, and b) that if I could, Hu could fix everything. When I tried to disabuse him of these notions and convince him to take a more practical approach he was dumbfounded.

Was Zhang naive? Misinformed? Slightly unhinged? Or just completely desperate? I could never quite tell. Often I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him, but I also started to feel frustrated with him. I felt certain he’d be better off if he stopped petitioning and found a new job outside of government. He didn’t dispute that this was something he could do, but he kept on petitioning.

One partial explanation for the misconceptions about the power of the foreign press is that the Chinese press does have system for reporting local misdeeds to higher level agencies. Chinese journalists are often asked to write “neican” or “internal reference reports” sent directly to higher-up, rather than putting sensitive information on the pages of their papers. This way acts of government malfeasance can be handled without the nuisance of public scrutiny. Needless to say, I wouldn’t know how to write a neican even if I wanted to, much less where to send it. I had to explain this several times to Zhang. But he was undeterred. If I couldn’t get in touch with President Hu, then maybe I could call Kofi Annan, he suggested, or George Bush.

One thing I’ve often wondered about Zhang and about many of the most diehard petitioners I’ve met is whether you have to be a little crazy to petition in the first place or whether the petitioning system drives otherwise sane people crazy. This isn’t a new question, obviously, particularly in a political context like China’s. What does sanity really mean when you’re faced with circumstances that are insane? Where’s the line between insanity and courage and how do you draw it when you’re dealing with people trying to win justice from a system that’s often unjust? Is it really so insane to feel that you shouldn’t have to lose your job because you wouldn’t buy your boss an air-conditioner?

Anyway, this was all on my mind last week when the couple from Jiangsu showed up. Like many petitioners they said they hoped I would “guanzhu” (pay attention to) their story and “fanying” (make it known.) The couple were in their late fifties and had been married since the 1970s when the husband had been sent to the wife’s village as a teacher. Their trouble had started when she moved back to his town and his family, as she put it “wanted to use me as a servant.” The husband’s parents were well-connected and as relations with their daughter-in-law deteriorated they began to enlist local officials to help persecute her, tearing down the house she lived in and preventing her from finding work, she said. Despite this, the couple were still together and had raised two children through the wife’s many stays in police detention over the years.

The wife’s life as a petitioner had begun over the issue of the demolition of her first house, then over the fact that she was jailed for petitioning, then over the demolition of a store she had run selling cloth, then over the way she’d been treated while petitioning. On many of her recent trips to Beijing, she’d been detained and roughed up. She said she been shoved into a van and driven to guesthouse in the nearby city of Tianjin. She showed me a photograph of her naked buttocks with a bruise on one that she said was the result of being kicked by a guard at the Jiangsu provincial affairs office in Beijing.

Each time she was caught and returned to Jiangsu, the woman returned to Beijing. Her story ran on and on and when she finished, we asked her what after all these years she hoped to gain. If petitioning was turning out so badly for her, why did she continue? What, moreover, did she hope would happen if we wrote about her? She explained that officials in her town had already paid for her husband to travel to Shanghai for a heart operation, they’d compensated her for the store they’d torn down and they’d offered her pretty generous settlements to stop petitioning. What she was fighting for was the right to say she’d been right. She wanted an official document saying that the police had had no grounds for putting her in jail. She wanted to tell her daughter that she wasn’t a criminal . She wanted the world to understand that “petitioners have no freedom and no safety.”

I’m fairly certain this woman was mentally unwell. Her body language, her eyes, the way she spoke all seemed somehow off. My Chinese colleague Qu Wei, who sat with me listening to her story, thought she was nuts. She and I had both never heard of a case where a peitioner had actually won so many concessions and to Qu Wei, it was unseemly for someone who had won so much to still be complaining.

I wasn’t so sure. But as I sat listening to her, looking at her photographs and trying to skim the pile of documents she’d handed me, I wondered how even the most upright, fair-minded, big-hearted letters and visits official would handle such a case. Could ever person who had wronged this woman really be disciplined? Who should pay to compensate her? As far as we could tell there were no easy answers to these questions. What the institution of petitioning had done was either burden a bunch of Beijing bureaucrats with an already insane woman, or turn a sane woman into desperate, obsessed public nuisance. Neither possibility shed a positive light on the system.

Over the years I’ve been in China, I’ve never once seen someone win justice through petitioning. Instead I’ve seen it give people unreasonable hope, turn them into vagabonds, get them beaten up and make them homeless. Surely there must be a better alternative. If the courts had some more independence and legitimacy that would certainly be a start.

At the end of our meeting the woman decided she preferred for me not to write about her by name. I’d told her I couldn’t promise that my reporting wouldn’t make things worse for her at home and she’d said that she’d wait a couple of years and come back to TIME after her daughter had graduated from college and there was no danger that the publicity would affect her education. After that, she said, she’d redouble her efforts.

Her husband had been quiet through most of the meeting and as we wound down I asked him whether he supported his wife’s crusade. “How shall I put it,” he replied bowing his head slightly, “If China is a rule of law country, then there must be a way to win justice.”

“And after all of this, you still really believe China is a rule of law country,” I asked, surprised.

He bowed his head again for a moment and then looked back up at me. “If China doesn’t have the rule of law,” he said, “Then what’s the point of petitioning?”

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