Lost voices of China's petitioners
By James Reynolds
BBC News, Beijing
China's parliament opens with a blast of lusty pride.
The national anthem plays to 3,000 delegates.
Then there is a touch of public humility.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao gets up onto the stage and makes
a bow so deep it even comes with its own name, the 90 degree bow.
It is his signal that the Chinese government is ready to listen
to what its people and its parliament have to say.
But just outside, the people are nowhere to be seen.
Tiananmen Square is almost empty. Rows of policemen standing under
Chinese flags stop anyone from getting close.
In the past few days, China has rounded up and jailed those most
desperate to be heard, petitioners who need the state's help.
For centuries, Chinese citizens have come from across the country to
throw themselves at the emperor's feet, begging to be heard.
In a country without elections, it is often the only way anyone get
But now that the parliament is in session, China wants to make sure
that petitioners do not get in the way.
At night, we drive in search of some of those who have managed to
We soon realise we are not the only ones out looking.
The roads are full of police cars, some sent in from the provinces
to track down local petitioners who have come to Beijing.
We stop near a set of houses and alleyways known as the petitioners'
village. Right now, it is heavily patrolled by police.
We head into the alleyway on foot, careful to avoid police informers,
known here as "dogs".
We make it into one small house and find a group of petitioners standing
They barely make a sound. They do not want to let the police know they
Several men begin to hold out their petitions, 50 or 60 pages of documents.
Each one lists years of struggle.
Wei Shoujin has spent 37 years fighting without success for a proper pension.
"Last night before dinner, we heard there were going to be some big searches,"
"We all ran off. I stayed outside till one in the morning. But they started
another raid at three. The police broke into the house, they broke down the
doors and windows. I rushed to climb out of the window and I hid under a box."
Rei Jiancai has spent a decade campaigning against local corruption. He holds
up his petition as he speaks.
"I've been tortured three times," he says. "My wife is being held in a labour
camp. But I can't give up."
Yu Changren sits in a corner. For the past 18 years he has been trying to
persuade the government to get his wages paid. He points to a gap in his teeth.
"Last time, I was beaten up and I lost one of my teeth," he says. "It was
right outside the State Petition Office. Four or five people dragged me
out of the queue and beat me up."
Heading into the cold
Still, no-one in this room is ready to give up. There is nothing else
they can try. During his years of petitioning, Zhang Yajun has lost everything
but his hope.
"We still believe in the Chinese Communist Party," he says. "We still have
faith in this country and the central government.
"Both President Hu [Jintao] and Premier Wen say they are going to build a
harmonious society and a harmonious relationship between the party and the
ordinary people. But where is this harmony? I don't see it."
The petitioners point to the bed of another petitioner, he was dragged
out at three in the morning.
He did not even have time to collect his belongings, which are left in
two plastic bags hanging on the wall.
Then, late at night, everyone heads out into the cold.
No-one wants to get caught and be beaten in another overnight raid. So,
the petitioners will wander around the streets till dawn.
Their government says it wants to listen. But right now, those who have
the most to say do not get heard.