Hope of the Hopeless

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Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

Our office received a visit today from 杜斌/ Du Pin a Chinese photographer who has spent much of his time in recent years recording the lives and suffering of China’s millions of petitioners. These are individuals who have exhausted their formal legal avenues of redress and are obliged to resort to an ancient system of appeal that is almost as old as China itself. (We’ve written here and here and elsewhere about the subject before) Most often these cases have to do with local authorities behaving badly, seizing land illegally, falsely accusing people of various crimes, forcing women to be sterilized or have abortions etc etc. (官逼民反. guanbiminfan, the equally ancient Chinese expression goes, “Officials oppress, the people rebel”) In theory, the petitioning system allows those with such grievances to appeal all the way to Beijing. But out of the roughly 12 million who lodge cases every year only a few succeed and even then the instruction from the central government (usually merely asking the local officials to reconsider the case) is often ignored.

And still they come in their tens of thousands to Beijing. Du’s visit (he’s given us permission to scan some of the photos from his book The Petitioner — published in Hong Kong by Ming Pao– and we’ll post some later when we get out techie hats on; meanwhile the photo above was taken at around the same time I made the trip described below) reminded me of when I visited Beijing’s main petitioning office in March. It should be a required stop for all visitors who leave China bedazzled by the shiny skyscrapers and the overwhelming sense of optimism and frenetic energy that they encounter in the business world. Neither of course represents the full reality of what is happening in China–what could?–but both are useful tools to understanding and only seeing one without the other is a severe handicap. Very few foreigners make it to this dilapidated corner of south Beijing and if they do they are almost immediately picked up by the police and politely asked what they are doing. This happened to me when I wandered down the alley that leads to the courtyard that is the Reception for the Office of Letters and Visits (Xinfang Jiedai Bangongshi, 信访接待办公室). A couple of polite officers took me into the police station and there I had to go through the usual routine of hanging around for various higher ups to appear ask me the same questions, examine my press card, take a photograph and finally escort me out another door pointing out that I couldn’t actually come down the alley as it was part of the Xinfang office and off limits to anybody who wasn’t there to present a petition.

I had walked briskly on the way in, avoiding eye contact, conscious of how conspicuous I was. But once back on the street, knots of grimy, desperate eyed petitioners began to approach me, murmuring at first, then tugging at my clothes and shouting to be heard, shoving their thick piles of papers (usually accumulated over year or even decades of fruitless petitioning) at me. Finally, inevitably, a group of plainclothes policemen appeared and broke up the crowd. I went through the same routine as before, tho these tough looking gentlemen were all business, no smiles, just questions, the photograph and “on your way please.” I’d known that this would likely happen but had wanted to see the place myself. I walked slowly back though the urine-stinking alleys, a diminishing group of hard core petitioners tagging along behind, still trying to get me to read their papers. Eventually the most persistent lady finally gave up, and I was on my own. All the buildings seemed half in ruins and it was clear that many people were living rough, coming up from the country, submitting their appeals, sleeping in a corner of some abandoned building, then leaving. Some stayed for longer and brought their families but were constantly on the run from the police, who seemed to favor conducting their raids at night. There were kids bundled into their padded clothes, beseeching eyes turned up but strangely mute, red cheeks hidden behind a layer of dirt, their parents often huddled , scrawny bundles asleep next to them, in front a pile of old shoes and second hand clothes spread out for sale on a blanket.One man who lay snoring in the middle of the lane, reeking of baijiu, rotgut spirits, a dark circle staining the crotch of his pants. As I turned the corner and saw him, another figure was bent over him, rooting through his pockets, starting up and flitting away through a broken wall as soon as I appeared.

A sad, sad spot, full of desperate, hopeless hope. The photographer Du says the place has been cleaned out now and most of the petitioners chased away, but they’ll be back. Most of them have nothing else.