Petitioning in the People’s Republic of China, also known as letters and calls, in Chinese as xìnfǎng(信访); or shàngfǎng(上访), is the administrative system for hearing complaints and grievances from individuals. Under the system, State Bureau for Letters and Calls (国家信访局) and local bureaus of letters and calls (“petitioning bureaus”) are commissioned to receive letters, calls, and visits from individuals or groups on suggestions, complaints, and grievances. The officers then channel the issues to respective departments and monitor the progress of settlement, which they feedback to the filing parties.
Today I am telling a story of Laowai(foreigner) petitioning in China.
Me, Julie Harms, 31 years old, an American, currently living in Beijing.
Don’t laugh, it’s real. The first time I came to China, I was attracted by the magic of this country; then, I stayed in China because I met my Chinese lover; now what I want to do here is to petition.
Why do I want to petition? When many other petitioners and I were crowded in a line in front of the government buildings, when I was shocked by the eyes of those hoping for justice, when I felt that I was just being told to go through the motions just like them, I often asked myself this question.
I graduated from Harvard University majoring in International Relations. One of the basic scholarly traditions of this world famous university is using the rule of laws as the foundation of a functioning society. When after experienced the Chinese-style petitioning, I felt that on the road of advocating rights with the law, perhaps we should go a little more in-depth.
In the beginning, my story was happy. According to the plan, my Chinese lover and I will get married by the end of this year. His name is Liu Shiliang (刘士亮), a countryside man from Wuhe, Anhui province. In 1999, I came to China to write a book about China’s tourism for an American publisher. Then by accident I met Liu Shiliang, a security guard in Hefei. Sparks began to fly between us and our social “status” difference did not stop our love.
In 2007, an accident struck Liu Shiliang, and also changed my life. Liu Shiliang was from Liucai village in Wuhe County, Anhui provice. In this village, majority of the people have the surname of Liu, they all belong to the same ancestor but with complicated relations, so there are many hidden conflicts between the family members.
Liu Shiliang’s older brother’s child had a dispute with Liu Shixun’s (刘士勋) child in the village. The conflict between the two kids turned into a fight with sticks and clubs between two families. In the end Liu Shiliang’s older brother’s family lost out. Liu Shiliang who was working in Shenzhen at the time was worried.
May 15, 2007, Liu Shiliang went back to Wuhe with 5 of his friends – this was easily seen as having the intention for revenge by the neighbors.
Unfortunately, Liu Shiliang and Liu Shixun got into a physical confrontation again. Liu Shixun was slightly injured, but Liu Shiliang had serious injury with fractured skull and was immediately sent to the Anhui province hospital for treatment.
I will quote the statement from Anhui Bengbu Intermediate People’s Court to indicate the matter:
“Liu Shixun, because of a neighborhood disputes, was armed and intentionally caused harm and serious injuries. The consequences of his actions constituted the crime of intentional inflicting harm. Liu Shixun, in addition to his criminal responsibility, also bears civil liability to the victim.”
June 23, 2008, the court upheld the first instance verdict: Liu Shixun was sentenced to five years in prison and to pay the compensation of 15,000 yuan. But Liu Shixun was not happy about the verdict and started suing Liu Shiliang for intrusion of private residence; he also went on the road to petitioning to higher authorities.
Petitioning is a typical Chinese way to appeal a claim. Every year many Chinese people walk on the road to petitioning. In 2004, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls announced that there were over 10 million petitioning case, and over 500,000 people are petitioning every year.
The whole incident was unfortunate. While waiting for Liu Shiliang to regain his health, we were starting to prepare for our wedding in 2009. After experienced this incident, I could not wait any longer to enter a stable marriage.
However the next twists and turns swept me into a larger and deeper whirlpool.
Small town foreign petitioner
March 2008, his family from Wuhe called Shenzhen. Liu Shiliang and I found out that Wuhe county police had a warrant for Liu Shiliang’a arrest for intrusion of private residence and the county court had already signed the warrant.
The neighbor dispute happened 9 month ago, why was Liu Shiliang being wanted now?
After half a year, October 2008, Liu’s family finally found out, as early as February 28, 2008, Wuhe county police already put Liu Shiliang as a wanted criminal on the internet.
Someone told me that in China, only the most heinous criminals, or those responsible who escape from major civil disputes will be wanted on the internet.
My lawyer Wu Zhijun told me that only escaping suspects will be listed as wanted criminals, but the police are also required to issue notice in writing to the family member within in 24 hours. However, Liu Shiliang and his parents never got such written notice. They said Wuhe county police knew Liu Shiliang’s work address, home address and telephone number in Shenzhen but no one fulfilled this obligation.
What made me wonder more was the crime of “intrusion of residence”. In the countryside of China, especially Liu’s hometown, walking around the neighborhood homes is very casual. No one needs to make an appointment.
All these strange things made me believe Liu’s parents’ explanation: the other family was unwilling to be punished so they influenced the law-enforcement agencies with their “connections”. But Liu Shixun’s family denied this accusation. In their view, Liu Shiliang started the violence with many of his friends.
Wuhe County Public Security Bureau Chief Lu Xinya told the reporter that it was obvious the party that did the beating and the party that intruded the residence all bear responsibilities. At that time they could not find Liu Shiliang therefore listed him as a wanted criminal.
Our lawyer submitted a request to withdraw the decision of arresting the complaint, and reported the situation to Provincial Public Security Department in October 2008, and to the Ministry of Public Security in December 2008. But at most the response Liu Shiliang and I received was “need to understand the situation better.”
Our attorney Wu negotiated with the Wuhe County police, he got the following reply: Liu Shiliang must be brought in, because Liu Shixun is also petitioning, two of your families constantly petitioning had a very bad effect to this place!
June 17, 2009 Liu Shiliang was taken away by the police in Shenzhen. In June 28, he was in custody to the Wuhe County Detention Center.
When I heard this news, I was in Houston. I immediately went back to Wuhe county. From that day onwards, my life was changed.
As a foreigner in Wuhe, this little county, I already stood out so much. Now, in Wuhe, Bengbu, Hefei and Beijing, in front of public prosecution and judicial organs at all levels, a red-haired foreigner also joined the ranks of the petitioners.
I first went to the Wuhe County Public Security Bureau. Then, after learning about there’s going to be a public prosecution, I went to the Wuhe County Prosecutorial office. Attorney Wu said, illegal intrusion of residence must meet certain degree of seriousness to be constituted as a crime. The handling of such cases, in general are tried privately, only the particular serious cases will be publicly prosecuted.
But, I found that looking for the officials in the county is a very difficult thing. I could never find the leader, many officials were not in or “were in a meeting” and even the direct reports did not know where the officials were.
An official of Wuhe Prosecutorial office said, since the police has already issued arrest, as prosecutors, approve the arrest and prosecution is logical. He told me: “the police garnish the food, we cook the food.”
I did not understand the logic of “garnishing the food”. Prosecutorial office should conduct independent investigations and cannot see approval of the arrest as a process of garnishing food to shed responsibilities. So if they arrest the wrong guy at start, then it is likely that they will keep going down the wrong path.
In the beginning, I did not want to complicate things, like the story of Qiu, I started to report my situation at the bottom level. But in the end, I decided to go to Beijing. My understanding was, when people think the law has been unjustly executed, they need a higher authority to correct these practices.
Picture: 9 years ago
My first job was in Beijing. After I graduated from Harvard in 2000, I worked at UNESCO Beijing Office for a year. Now I am visiting a place where I once lived, this time for petitioning.
I first went to the petitioning office of the public security at alley in East brothel. I stated the issue, Wuhe police should not have put Liu Shiliang on the wanted list, this was abuse of power. My purpose was very simple, to proceed according to the law.
I went to the Ministry of Public Security many times. People at the petitioning office already knew me, they even said hello to me, “You are back again?”
In front of the Letters and Visits Office packed with people from all over the country throughout the day. In here the numbers are issued in the morning, then the numbers are called in the afternoon. People line up early, hoping to have the opportunity to present their grievances. I saw some petitioners waited in line for their turns not at all easy got to the front, but because they did not bring their id cards, were sent home by the guards casually with only one sentence.
In the beginning, petitioners thought I was a reporter, they told me their own experiences. Over time, many issues remained unresolved due to cumulative effect. They seemed to have no more hopes on the results. The only focus was to keep petitioning. Interestingly, a Chinese man even asked me, “you are petitioning because someone instructed you or someone spent money employed you?”
Perhaps it did not look good for a foreigner standing in the crowd of petitioners? One time, petitioning bureau staff invited me to go sit. I declined: I am not a child. I do not need to be taken care of. I want to line up with the other petitioners.
Petitioning bureau at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, located near the Dong Jiao Min Xiang Road, there is no sign on the door and looked mysterious. In there the staff members all felt strange about the crime of “intrusion of residence”. The charge should not constitute as a felony. I remembered the “number 59” staff member because he was the kind of person that will not finish listening to my talks. I even noticed his accent that he came from Hohhot.
I only went to the National Petition Office once. I took the #308 bus line there. This place only issue 100 numbers a day, but usually a group of 5 petitioners are seen at the same time. Since usually they start to see the petitioners at around 2, 3 in the afternoon, I had to be squeezed into a 7 petitioners group.
The entire July and August I was petitioning almost every day, and learned the patterns of these petitioning bureaus clearly. In order to save money, I even got a bus card, and Beijing’s bus only cost 40 cents!
In the Wangfujing Xinhua Bookstore, I bought many books on Chinese law, criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law and Petition Regulations. After I read these books, I though they are not much different than the laws in the United States. The only difference is how they are enforced.
For example according to section 23 of the Petition Law, petitioners should be given a written reply by the authorities, but I have never gotten one. Only occasionally I was given a little note to tell me the next petitioning time, and where I should go next to solve the problem.
Did I mess up everything?
I am petitioning in Beijing, and made Liu Shiliang’s attorney Liu Yongmei very unhappy. She said, this case was very simple to begin with, but because Liu Shiliang had a soon-to-be-wife from the United States continuously petitioning and also contacting the media, now the simple matter is made to be complicated.
Maybe attorney Liu was right, on September 14, 2009, Wuhe County People’s Court had the hearing, which was the first time I saw Liu Shiliang in three months. But the hearing ended without a sentence.
Attorney Wu Zhijun thinks that the public security of Wuhe County detained Liu Liang but did not exceed the period of detention provided by law. In a normal case the court will have a hearing and sentencing in 1 month or 1 and half months. After the hearing, the prosecutor have two chances to present more evidence, each time can take 1 month. If the court still cannot form a sentence in one and half months, they can request another 1 month extension from a higher count.
Wuhe County Office staff member Li Xiangqian said in an interview, the case was not a serious, the reason there was no sentencing is because new evidence was collected. The court wanted to turn this case into an ironclad case.
Li told the reporter “Julie wanted to use her foreigner status to influence the case, but it is not going to work because China is not at the time of being the ‘slave of the foreigners’ anymore.”
November 2, I went to Wuhe county court, the court told me this case already was brought up to the Anhui province higher court, and also gotten the permission for extension of the sentencing. November 7, I took Liu’s parents to Anhui Province People’s Procuratorate and learned that Wuhe County Court has referred case back to Wuhe County Procuratorate.
Attorney Liu Yongmei said, Wuhe County’s Procuratorate withdrawal the accusation, and they will re-prosecute.
In the detention center, Liu Shiliang had seen a few inmates getting in and out of the center. Liu Yongmei said the two people originally detained with him, one person had a criminal record. He climbed the walls, picked locks and also wounded a man. He was sentenced to six months and already left the detention center; the other was sentenced to three months, also left already. Because Liu Shiliang, “refused to plead guilty,” we were not allowed bail request. Now, Liu Shliang has been in custody for almost six months.
I asked myself, was our stubbornness that angered the local officials?
Some Chinese people would say, certainly there are some differences between China’s laws and U.S. laws. China’s laws are still not perfect, because China is a developing country. However, I think many places in China, the law really relies on people, relies connections.
I was worried the case would drag on endlessly. November 12, I bought a one way airplane ticket to Beijing from Shenzhen that night, 60% off. I decided to fly to Beijing the same night.
November 13, I went to three public security departments in a row. In the Ministry of Public Security, I once again declined the invitation to sit and talk, so the conversation ended at the door. In the Supreme Court, guards told me that if there was no verdict I would not be seen.
In the afternoon, I went to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. I went there twice before, they all knew me.
One guard told me that the #59 staff from last time has been transferred to the State Petition Office. He told me to go to the Complaints Bureau to find staff #59, so that I will know the progress of the case.
During this period, I also did something an outsider probably would think is outrageous, to seek Obama for petitioning. November 15th President Obama visited to China. I knew he would go to the American Embassy. I thought I want to let the U.S. president and China’s national leaders to know that a “foreign Qiu Ju (famous petitioner)” exists, and that might be able to get things going. Given that I already tried the judicial channels and public opinion and have all run into a wall. I thought I would try the traditional Chinese way – “GaoYuzhuang”. (Complain about something in front of the emperor)
November 17 afternoon, I registered to enter the U.S. Embassy. I walked into the yard and found there were full of United States embassy officials and agents waiting for the President. I walked up and explained my situation to them and handed them a letter. But they told me that they could not receive and transmit anything on the behalf of Mr. President and asked me to leave.
I expressed my understanding, but I was not convinced. Obama was my Harvard alumni. I thought it was not over the line for a U.S. citizen to ask her own president for help, Besides, I voted for him.
I am out of ideas, and do not know what to do next. You know, I am petitioning as a last resort. In the U.S., there is no Letters and Visits Office, there aren’t many petitioners at the state capitals and Washington because the channels for expressing opinions are very open and direct.
This time, I spent two weeks in Beijing. It was like going to work, going out petitioning in the morning, talk to lawyers and journalists then back to the hotel at night, taking crowded buses every day.
In the process of my petitioning, “in progress” was the words I heard the most. The petitioning progress has always been hidden; I still do not know which step is the procedure on?
November 26, after I walked all over Beijing’s cold streets for the whole day, I was freezing and starving. I passed by a “SUBWAY”, saw the half priced turkey in the display case, then I realized today was thanksgiving.
At this point, my parents and my dear grandmother were sitting at home enjoying a meal together in Houston. But I was alone busy running around in China. I did not have my lover next to me to share my thoughts. Liu Shiliang, what are you doing at this moment?
December 2, Liu Shiling had his second hearing. The day before the hearing, I once again went to the petitioning office of the Ministry of Public Security. Surprisingly, this time I was warmly receipted. A staff member told me, “Ministry of Public Security was concerned about your issues. The minister on several occasions commented on the issues you have reported.”
I didn’t know what this meant. China’s affairs were too complicated for me, a foreigner, could not read between his lines.
10 am, I left the Public Security Bureau in a hurry and caught a train to Bengbu from Beijing. I was so tired after number of days running around.
I don’t know what the feature would be? I just want to go through the storm that is in front of me right now.
(December 2, Wuhe County Court had the second hearing of Liu Shiliang’s case. Wuhe County Court said the court will choose another sentencing date. Liu Shiliang is still in custody.)