In the 2016 Chinese movie, I am Not Madame Bovary, glamorous actress Fan Bingbing shed makeup for the role of a rural petitioner whose quest for justice takes 11 relentless years.
That’s, however, rarely true for the thousands of petitioners with grievances against local governments, who land in Beijing during the annual two sessions of China’s Parliament, only to be harassed, driven back or detained by the police.
The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp Parliament and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — the country’s top advisory body — convenes for two weeks every March.
This is the time when citizens with complaints – mostly relating to land, education and healthcare – land up in Beijing from across China to knock the doors of the highest authorities. It is technically legal here to petition the central government in Beijing against local governments.
But rights activists say that in its quest to put up a show of harmony and social and political stability, it is Beijing’s annual routine to further harass the complainants and dispatch them from the capital.
Local governments obstruct these petitioners because their performance rating drops if the higher authorities receive too many petitions from their residents, Guo Liang, a law professor from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, told state media last year.
A human rights activist shared nearly 50 cases of petitioners being detained, sent back to their hometowns or even prevented from leaving their homes to come to Beijing this year; countless more are recorded annually. Sometimes, petitioners and activists are put in pre-emptive detentions before the two sessions. The activist told HT about Qiu Meili from Shanghai, whose house was demolished 10 years ago but is yet to receive compensation; Qiu was detained by local police before leaving for Beijing.
And there are many such examples.
“Two female petitioners from central China’s Henan province allegedly died after being intercepted by local police,” state media reported recently.
“On the morning of February 28, Cheng Yulan, Shanghai human rights activist and a Christian, was abducted by eight Shanghai police officers from his residence in Beijing, and was taken to Shanghai,” was another example shared with HT.
Then there’s the case of independent woman author and gender activist Ye Haiyan, who on March 1 was ordered to leave her Beijing home and return to hometown Hubei for the duration of the sessions.
“Petitioning is technically a legal activity under Chinese law, but in practice, the central government leaders all but condone unlawful efforts by local governments to stop local citizens from visiting Beijing – using whatever means necessary,” William Nee from rights group Amnesty International said.
“The underlying issues at hand are often very severe human rights violations, and until these issues are peacefully resolved, petitioning will likely continue to be a main source of tension in Chinese society. What we have seen recently, however, are systematic efforts to muzzle the groups and individuals who have tried to publicise news about petitioners’ rights,” Hong Kong-based Nee told HT.
“There has also been a push for the process to go online, but the state bureau of letters and visits, which receives petitions in Beijing, said in 2014 it had received 250,000 personal visits from petitioners. Across the country, some six million petitions are submitted each year,” the South China Morning Post recently reported, quoting official figures.
China’s angry petitioners wish they met officials like Fan Bingbing’s character in the movie to get justice. Even if it takes 11 years.