Petitioning The Emperor

Not long ago Hua Huiqi lived quietly with his family in a Beijing courtyard house, minding his own business. That changed when authorities forcibly evicted him and his elderly parents in September 2002 to make way for a new development. Almost overnight, Hua became an activist. Now he makes the rounds of government offices and other gathering places every day, meeting with irate groups of Chinese protesters from all over the country who've converged on Beijing--as one puts it--to "petition the emperor." (Hua tells the out-of-towners to phone him if they need help, then hands over a card that reads YOUR BUSINESS IS OUR BUSINESS.) "We're trying to coordinate with people from all of China's provinces," says Hua, as a friend fields mobile-phone calls from various demonstrations around the city. "Already protests are developing the way they did in the spring of 1989."

That may be an exaggeration: it's hard to imagine the motley assemblage of provincial protesters in Beijing--between 500 and 600 on any given day-- mushrooming into something like the nationwide student-led democracy movement that briefly galvanized Chinese society. But what Hua and others like him have begun to do--linking the aggrieved with one another, publicizing their causes, unifying urban unemployed and rural landless and middle-class Chinese fed up with corruption--certainly has officials worried. For the first time since 1989, protesters from different cities are starting to liaise with and assist each other. Joint demonstrations are rare, but their anger gives them common cause. And they're angrier than ever. Just last week up to 200 jobless Liaoning province steelworkers had to be forcibly removed from Tiananmen Square, says Hua, even as about 100 Shanghainese chanted, "Down with corrupt officials!" outside a nearby government office. If authorities don't handle these petitioners carefully, "we could see a similar--or even worse--incident than the crackdown of 1989," says one Chinese scholar who has been following events.

Tensions are beginning to come to a head. An upcoming Communist Party plenum, scheduled for mid-October, is drawing increasing numbers of protesters eager to air their grievances in front of the nation's top leadership. As usual, authorities are scrambling to persuade, threaten, even bribe them to go back home. But that only underscores how dangerous the problem has become: many of the new breed of activists have no homes to go back to, having been forcibly evicted by greedy real-estate developers and crooked local officials as part of China's ongoing development boom. The fact that bread-and-butter issues are at stake makes their demonstrations particularly volatile. "People are willing to sacrifice their lives because they're homeless already," says one Chinese editor.

Just last week 45-year-old Anhui province farmer Zhu Zhengliang tried to commit suicide in Tiananmen Square. Distraught after the illegal January 2002 demolition of his recently constructed $12,000 house, Zhu traveled to Beijing with his wife to launch a protest. Zhu went to the square Sept. 15, doused himself with gasoline and lit a match. He was hospitalized in Beijing. "Ever since the demolition my father said several times that he didn't want to live anymore," says the couple's 20-year-old son, Zhu Renjie. "After our home was destroyed, he was so angry that he knocked his head against a wall. Then we stayed up all night, crying."

Zhou Zhanshun knows they are not the only family shedding bitter tears. Zhou, head of the Letters and Visits Bureau, the subcabinet-level office responsible for handling complaints, petitions and demonstrations, admits that civic protests are on the rise. Last year for the first time, urban protesters accounted for about two thirds of the total, whereas rural residents used to be the majority. Zhou says that angry citizens are increasingly organized across regions and industries, and that 39 percent of the protests nationwide last year were repeat demonstrations. "They don't go to the Letters and Visits offices, but instead organize around Zhongnanhai [China's leadership compound] and Tiananmen Square," says a frustrated Zhou. "They conduct sit-ins, pester officials, kneel in supplication and block the cars of central-government leaders."

So far their numbers have not reached those of the massive sit-down protest in April 1999 that prompted a vicious crackdown on the Falun Gong movement. And none of the protests have been allowed to linger in high-profile areas. But there are echoes of the past. In Beijing "we even have our own version of Democracy Wall," says activist Hua, referring to the handwritten posters that appeared on a Beijing wall during a 1978 pro-democracy movement. On a leafy boulevard outside Beijing's city-government offices, dozens of people gather in a parklike area--some with placards, others with thin sheets of rice paper on the ground--to share their grievances. A festive touch is added by 20 or so brightly colored Chinese lanterns, shining pink and red in the bright sunlight. It's not a party, but rather a subtle Chinese metaphor. "Even in daylight, people put up lanterns because they can't see clearly," explains Beijing resident Wu Lishan, another victim of illegal demolition. "It symbolizes the darkness of the government. There's no sunshine here."

Because they gather near many of the same offices, petitioners from different provinces and industries naturally mingle, finding solace with other citizens angered by official corruption. Beijing-based activists like Hua have begun to function as information clearinghouses for many of them, leading out-of-towners to offices where their protest might have maximum impact, or alerting foreign journalists to police beatings and arrests. Last week Hua brought fruit and water to detained Shanghai protesters and tried to frind relatives of the injured farmer from Anhui. Hua and his colleagues also informally advise petitioners about their constitutional rights--though that just irritates some police. "In August a policeman told me to stop telling petitioners about their legal rights," Hua recalls. "He said it would just make them feel more depressed."

Some officials choose to see the fact that most of the anger derives from economic complaints as a blessing rather than a curse; at least, unlike 1989, the anger today is not focused on the political system. "Beijing alone has more than 3,000 construction projects--just imagine it," says Vice Mayor Lu Hao. For the most part, say authorities, local citizens are more than happy to trade their battered old apartments for new high-rises and city development. But, they say, how could there not be exceptions? "We also know that some residents have complained about illegal operations by housing developers," Lu says carefully. "And we try our best to solve their problems."

Authorities haven't forsworn more traditional--and rougher--methods. For example, since early September more than 100 Shanghai protesters have slipped into Beijing to mount near-daily protests against China's recent wave of demolitions. "The central government might have complained to Shanghai officials about us," says Xiao Youqing, whose Shanghai home was demolished two years ago. "That's probably why some Shanghai authorities rushed to Beijing to deal with us." He says more than 20 Shanghai political and security officials took rooms in the same hotels where the petitioners are staying. "They hang out in the lobby, watching us," says Xiao. "Some make threats, saying that once we return to Shanghai we'll wind up in jail."

Could these land-related complaints morph into an overtly political movement? While many new petitioners fervently hope that national leaders can solve their local problems, experience breeds cynicism. Whether Chinese President Hu Jintao does or doesn't care about citizen complaints "isn't really important," says Hua. "Because without a free press and judicial independence, whoever consolidates power will ultimately become corrupt." He cites the example of the late Deng Xiaoping, who engineered his own political rehabilitation in the late 1970s--at least initially--by supporting the popular Democracy Wall movement. Once Deng cemented his position within the top leadership, the Democracy Wall came down. "Then what happened at Tiananmen in 1989? Deng himself suppressed the demonstrators," says Hua. Even as they try to petition the regime, many in this new generation of Chinese protesters doubt the top leadership can be trusted at all.