A harsh winter for China’s discontented

Human Rights

Those lodging complaints against Chinese authorities are left out in the cold.  Photo by Shuang Gao.

With bone-chilling winds and sub-zero temperatures, the winter in Beijing is piercingly cold. And Ren Meiling has to sleep on the street without anything warm to cover herself. It’s her tenth night sleeping rough since she arrived in Beijing. Which, at the age of 63, is not an easy undertaking.

But Ren is not homeless. Back in Henan province, in central China, she has a house and a family. She came to Beijing for one reason: to petition for justice.

‘They accused me of breaking the one-child policy but I don’t even have a child,’ says Ren. As a result of the accusation, she was not allowed to retire, even 13 years after reaching the legal age. It has been fourteen years since she first started to petition. In that time she has asked for justice all the way from the local authorities to the central government but to no avail.

In Beijing, there are hundreds like Ren who are lodging complaints against the Chinese authorities who have to sleep rough on the streets or in the subway tunnels. Most of them gather at a place not far from Beijing South Railway Station, an area now nicknamed the ‘Petitioners Village’.

They come from all over China. They left their homes and came to Beijing for justice. Yet the way is both long and difficult. Standing in line, not far from the state bureau for letters and calls, an 87-year-old veteran with several medals on his chest says he has been petitioning for more than 40 years, helping people from his village get justice. It is common for petitioners to end up homeless as they sometimes spend substantial amounts of money in the course of petitioning.

‘I got a blanket from another petitioner when I arrived but it was taken away by the security’ says Ren. Most of the petitioners living there have little food to eat during the day and nothing to keep warm during the night. And with winter settling in, it is particularly difficult for them to live.

‘After the first snow this winter, some petitioners came to me crying for help,’ said Yu Jianrong on Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging site. Yu is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and has been helping petitioners for years.

This year, Beijing had its first snow on 2 December. The average temperature has since remained well below zero. Several rough sleepers have died because of the cold.

‘They (petitioners) came to Beijing because they think they have been treated unjustly,’ said Professor Yu. ‘We cannot tell the right or wrong of their cases and we cannot solve their problems. But we can give them basic care out of the spirit of humanitarianism.’

Professor Yu put out a request for help online and received a huge response. A volunteer group was quickly formed which received donations from all over the country. Within a day, they had raised more than RMB 50,000 ($8,000).

However, helping petitioners proved more difficult than they thought. On 14 December, five volunteers were delivering food and clothes among the petitioners and were taken away by police and all their donations were confiscated.

‘The police said it might cause a public disorder, they are too sensitive,’ says Zhang Jian*, a volunteer. Zhang works in a securities agency and helps petitioners in his spare time. After the incident, he negotiated with the police, hoping they would release the volunteers. After five hours, the police finally agreed to free them.

‘They agreed because they are afraid of the pressures from Professor Yu,’ says Zhang. According to Zhang, Professor Yu published the incident on Weibo and asked for help, which attracted a lot of attention.

‘We were arrested in a basement and were forbidden to use the toilet outside.’ says Huang Yi*, one of the volunteers who was arrested. ‘They told us, including our female colleagues, to use a sink in the basement as a toilet.’

The volunteers are usually petitioners themselves. Hunag came to Beijing because his house was torn down by his local government and he himself got badly beaten up. But this was not the first time that police have interfered.

‘Some organizations brought us clothes and duvets, but the police or security just took them away,’ says Ren Meiling.

Zhang says the police become very sensitive when it comes to petitioners.

'We also help other homeless people and we never get disturbed by police then,’ he says.

The group is now looking for ways to deliver the supplies without ‘disturbing the public order’.

‘We have rented a place to accommodate petitioners as well as other homeless’, says Huang. ‘I understand the police have their responsibilities, but it’s not easy for us under these circumstances.’

In the meantime, the government has shown signs of compassion towards petitioners. Last January, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao became the first central leader to visit people with grievances.

At the beginning of December, Beijing also promised to launch a six-month campaign to crackdown on so-called black jails – illegal prisons in which the government detains people to prevent them from petitioning.

But with barely enough to scrape a living, and temperatures expected to drop to -10°C on Christmas night, blankets not promises are what petitioners like Ren need right now. For them it’s going to be a long winter.

* Not their real names.

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