"Usually we don't hit anybody"
April 3, 2013 4:01 AM   Subscribe

"Chinese citizens can file petitions about their grievance with so-called letters and visits offices of various levels of government organs and courts, a mechanism set up in the 1950s. Under the current system, the number of petitions filed during an official's tenure is used as a yardstick for performance evaluation, prompting local governments to use every means possible to stop petitioners and shuffle them home. It has become an open secret that local governments hire "black guards" in the capital to stop petitioners from filing a grievance, thus reducing the number of petitions that are recorded." -- A day in the life of a Beijing "black guard".
posted by MartinWisse (17 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
The go-to academic for commentary on the petioning system and its multifarious failings and abuses is Yu Jianrong; Sometimes, he offers advice; often, he advises against petitioning. "I say, 'Don't go. It's useless', or e.g this in the official Beijing Review came up on a quick Google for stuff in translation; basically he spends his time showing how the system is broken. He straddles that uneasy line between kept CASS academic and independent voice but I've not seen anything by him that hasn't been good work and as you can see from the second link he puts the research in.
posted by Abiezer at 5:10 AM on April 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is interesting, thanks. While I'm not surprised at the widespread suppression, I'm a little surprised at how flagrant and out-in-the-open it is.
Also, they need to re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four; "black guard" (or, obviously, blackguard) is way too accurate a title. They need to call them "feedback facilitators" or some other nonsense as part of the Ministry of Petitions (MiniPet).
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 5:47 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most petitioners forcibly escorted home become extremely agitated.

With good reason, I'd say. Beijing is loaded with police. Are they not all over this, all the time because they're corrupt, or what?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:18 AM on April 3, 2013


I visited the petitioners village in Beijing back in 2005 and it was shocking. There were thousands of petitioners living on the streets near the train station waiting to go talk to officials or for a resolution to their issue that was likely to never come. There were reports back then of roving gangs that would enter the village at night and attack the petitioners and it was a widely held belief they worked for the government. Yet, even with threats of beatings or worse many of the petitioners stood out in the open daily demonstrating for justice.

I also spoke to petitioners in Yichang who were never properly compensated for being forced off their land during the construction of the three gorges dam project and as a result I was detained (with a writer) for over 8 hours and threatened with expulsion from the country. Ultimately I was coerced into signing a document that I was told said I would no longer speak to any dissidents while I was in China and sent on my way. Unfortunately the petitioner, Fu Xiancai, who I photographed had already been on the Chinese government's radar and the threats and intimidation increased after we spoke to him.

Fu was beaten badly and left paralyzed a year or so after we met with him.
posted by photoslob at 6:22 AM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


So - ok... When we petition in groups of people (like those teachers), we get the riot police who quite often do hit people, or at least use a bit of tear gas.

If we petition using online government sanctioned petitions, we get a nice little reply from the president if it reaches so many signatures, with nary a mention of any actual changes happening after that reply (and lord have mercy if you actually think you can end the drug war or something that has a real effect via a petition like this)...

Yup - in the US we totally let our citizens speak freely and never harm them for doing so and never ignore them when they do it alone or via the Internets. We're so not like China, nope.

I'm not saying I prefer the Chinese way of dealing with petitions, I suppose *generally* the US way is a softer form of power being wielded (so long as you're not a dirty hippie with puppets doing protesting).
posted by symbioid at 6:41 AM on April 3, 2013


Under the current system, the number of petitions filed during an official's tenure is used as a yardstick for performance evaluation,......

Oh my Lord it's like being a high-school teacher dealing with principal's office referrals all over again.
posted by resurrexit at 7:33 AM on April 3, 2013


Seems like kind of an insult to brave Chinese activists to compare freedom of speech and assembly in the US with China.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:34 AM on April 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


blackguard (plural blackguards) (dated)
A scoundrel; an unprincipled contemptible person; an untrustworthy person.

posted by resurrexit at 7:36 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a terrific documentary about this called (appropriately) Petition.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:04 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


On board the USS Constitution, there was the rule that if sailors had a grievance, they could put in writing and sneak past the Marines at night, on the top deck, and drop their letter down to the officer's sleeping quarters. If they succeeded, their complaint would be dealt with. If the messenger was caught, he risked the cat.
posted by ocschwar at 9:14 AM on April 3, 2013


Reading some of these comments I can't help thinking, Phew! Thank God at least someone on the Internet's got China's back... Not like China has any means of its own to defend itself from criticism.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:04 AM on April 3, 2013


Odd how the communist government went right back to a fake system of dealing with grievances taken from the imperial era. Not much has changed, only the names are different.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:10 PM on April 3, 2013


Earlier this year a Beijing court sentenced a number of men to prison for operating a black jail. The fact that the court was allowed to make this judgment, and that it was published domestically (in the nationalistic Global Times, no less), suggests that the central government is finally trying to take some steps to address the problem.
posted by hawkeye at 4:39 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we petition using online government sanctioned petitions, we get a nice little reply from the president if it reaches so many signatures, with nary a mention of any actual changes happening after that reply (and lord have mercy if you actually think you can end the drug war or something that has a real effect via a petition like this)...

To be sure, most of the petitions are about stuff that should be legislation ... and more than a few would require a change of heart from a Supreme Court Justice or three. I don't think I'd want to live in a country where the president just changed policy on the whim of a petition.

Point being, we have an accountable system of government, as far as that goes, which isn't to say it's perfect. China, however, has created a system of fake accountability (with no small shade of honor/shame culture), and has incentivized a process of frustrating that accountability because in rule of law terms, the officials are not actually accountable.
posted by dhartung at 4:55 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's misleading to think of petitioners here as activists -- these are petitions in the sense of "petition for justice," not "petitions on Change.org." Petitioners mostly don't come to Beijing to protest against the government -- heartbreakingly, most of them come to Beijing because they believe the central government would set things right if only it could be made aware of their cases. A lot of these have to do with land grabs or other miscarriages of justice -- personal tragedies that people mostly don't perceive as being related to China's political system. In most cases they're here because there are literally no other avenues open to them for redress: even when not actually complicit, local authorities are more interested in keeping things stable (维稳) than in getting involved; meanwhile the courts are dirty, the media is muzzled, and there's nowhere for the poor and fucked-over to turn. The internet may eventually change this, but in the meantime there are still plenty of people sleeping rough in Taoranting Park. (Or wherever the petitioners are sleeping these days.) As hawkeye notes above, there are signs that the central government is finally getting serious about reforming things here, but so far the incentive is still for local-level government to keep potential petitioners from airing their dirty laundry in Beijing.

I'm not saying I prefer the Chinese way of dealing with petitions, I suppose *generally* the US way is a softer form of power being wielded (so long as you're not a dirty hippie with puppets doing protesting).

I've got friends back in the US who have made similar comments when I tell them about the times that friends of mine here were detained for working with foreign journalists, or about the time a few years ago when a documentary-making friend of a friend got detained for a month and a half for reasons that are still unclear to him, in a place that is still unknown to him. It's good and admirable to examine your own conduct before criticizing other people -- Confucius had a couple of things to say about this -- but there really is no comparison between Pepper Spray Cop and the system that the former thug in this article was a part of.
posted by bokane at 12:12 AM on April 4, 2013




It's misleading to think of petitioners here as activists -- these are petitions in the sense of "petition for justice," not "petitions on Change.org."

Yup, same meaning as in our First Amendment ("petition the government for redress of grievances"). In many cases, such as these "personal tragedies" as you put it, the actual form this takes is a lawsuit, rather than asking someone to do something they don't really have the power to do, but then again this points back to the importance of the rule of law and at least modest faith in the workings of public institutions. Here, petitioning in the paper or sign sense is reserved for truly hopeless situations that often elicit limited sympathies.

I guess I'll just note a general similarity of approach here to the way Jim Crow was implemented in the South, with avenues of redress such as voting being suppressed, and when that protection was being pierced by the civil rights movement, the suppression turned violent.
posted by dhartung at 12:05 AM on April 5, 2013


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