Aggrieved citizens sleep rough in Beijing in hope someone will listen
Numbers of petitioners peaks during National People's Congress that begins Saturday
Authorities are trying to stop petitioners coming to Beijing
Guo Baoxi has lived on the streets of this Beijing neighborhood for 15 years.
A former coal miner, Guo is from Shanxi province hundreds of miles away. He chooses to live rough in the hope that China’s top officials will listen to and address his grievances.
He claims officials in charge of the mine where he worked abused him – a rag used to clean toilets was stuffed in his mouth while he hung upside down naked through the night, his body repeatedly beaten.
“I only regained consciousness when they poured cold water over me,” says Guo.
He says officials in Shanxi province ignored his complaints and Guo set out for the country’s capital, Beijing, hoping to be heard. CNN has not been able to verify his claims.
Along with dozens of other petitioners, he camps out in a park and tunnel behind Yongdingmen – once the front gate on Beijing’s now mostly destroyed ancient city wall.
The act of petitioning is a Chinese tradition that stretches back centuries to the Imperial era when aggrieved people could directly appeal to officials in the capital, and even to the emperor in some cases, in their quest for justice.
It’s a tradition that continues to this day and many petitioners believe that the annual meeting of China’s parliament – the National People’s Congress (NPC) that begins Saturday – is the best chance to attract attention to their grievances.
Local officials often don’t acknowledge grievances out of fear that reporting a high number of complaints to the central government could affect their career prospects.
But, as in ancient times, the chances of having their complaints addressed is very low.
Zhang Xiao directs Hefeng, a non-profit which gives essential services to homeless people including petitioners in Beijing. He estimates that up to a thousand petitioners live on the street while the NPC is in session.
Most go home empty handed but some, like Guo, never leave.
‘Stay home and go online’
In recent years, the government has taken steps to stop them from coming to Beijing, where they line up in front of the State Bureau of Letters and Calls.
In 2014, amended guidelines for petitioners instructed people to stay home and petition local officials with written letters, emails or through the online petitioning system.
To alleviate the number of appeals to the central government in Beijing, the guidelines encouraged local offices to take up more cases, while stating that higher government offices would not accept cases that could be adjudicated at local level.
The approach is working, according to Mudan Lifu, a state petition office official who told state-run newspaper the People’s Daily there had been a 36% drop in the number of people traveling to Beijing to petition in 2015.
However, the reforms aren’t enough to sway some petitioners to abandon their hopes.
Begging and scavenging
Some people have spent as many as 40 years in Beijing petitioning, according to Zhang, whose organization offers homeless petitioners legal advice.
“We lead them through the process of getting a correct understanding of the policies,” he says.
“Encouraging them to go home has always been an important part of our work with petitioners. But most of them are not willing to go home.” He explains the tradition of petitioning and a misunderstanding of the legal process has made it difficult to deter petitioners.
The root cause of the issue, in Zhang’s opinion, is the lack of basic legal knowledge in China, particularly in rural areas, where residents often don’t have access to higher education.
“In primary and secondary education, there is no such course on laws that teaches students to protect their legal rights as a citizen.”
Guo describes each day as a struggle saying the street sleepers depend on charities for some of their food. They beg and scavenge for the rest. In 15 years, he hasn’t seen any of his fellow petitioners succeed.
Still, he says: “The country has a policy…we count on the country.”