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Petitions in China

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James Reynolds | 12:09 UK time, Thursday, 9 April 2009

Don't call anyone insane in China. Professor Sun Dongdong has just made that mistake. In a recent article, the professor who runs Peking University's judicial expertise centre suggested that 99% of the people who repeatedly petition the government are mentally ill. Bad move.

The professor apologised and said that he would mind his words in the future. But for petitioners themselves an apology wasn't enough. One group demonstrated outside Peking University with the simple message that they are not actually insane and that their grievances need to be taken seriously. It's a serious point since the conclusions reached by experts such as Professor Sun can be used by the authorities to evaluate a person's mental health.

Protestor and police outside Peking University

The official Xinhua news agency reports that up to 200 petitioners have carried on a vigil outside the university to demand a proper explanation from the professor.

In China, petitioning is an ancient form of getting justice. In imperial times, an ordinary subject who needed justice would come to the capital, throw him/herself at the feet of the emperor and beg for his/her case to be heard.

Nowadays, anyone who has a complaint can begin their search for justice in the legal system. But if they get nowhere in the courts, their last resort is to do what people in China have done for centuries - come to the capital and petition the country's top leaders.

In modern China, petitioners make up a marginalised collection of citizens. They are often arrested and sent back to their home provinces. Many spend years trying to get the government to hear their case, but very few ever get any results. They petition on a wide range of cases - I've met a builder whose wages were never paid, a man engaged in a long-running land dispute, and a father who sobbed as he explained his campaign for an investigation into his only son's death.

Petitioners are desperate to be heard. Whenever I've been to cover their protests in Beijing, I've been surrounded by groups who try to hand me copies of their petitions. These petitions are often 40-50 pages long and include legal documents, photos and letters. The petitioners hope that someone, or even anyone, will read their petition and hear their case.

Many petitioners have spent everything on their campaign. They have sometimes lost their families and their life savings. But not, they insist, their sanity.


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  • 1. At 1:40pm on 09 Apr 2009, pchen442 wrote:

    "In China, petitioning is an ancient form of getting justice. In imperial times, an ordinary subject who needed justice would come to the capital..."

    I must say that James has done a good job in putting things in the right cultural context. If he would do that more often then many potential misunderstanding between the East and West will be resolved. Keep up the good work!

    Anyway... I think the proffessor said that those people are 'insane' because only VERY VERY VERY desperate people would do that. Kneeling down to a Chinese means sacrificing your dignity and people shouldn't do that easily. I don't think those are people are insane but I think that they were too reliant on the government.

    'Many people have lost their life savings...' I think most people in China would tolerate a bit of injustice (because it's a fact of life) and just get on with life. The cost of petition (the cost of travelling to Beijing and getting proffessionals to write the petition documents etc) are MUCH greater than any benefits most can claim. They're doing that because they 'yan bu xia zhei kou qi' - litterally 'they can swallow their anger (at injustice done to them). I think they are irrational like many consumers are when buying products (e.g. people buy branded goods which aren't often the best on the market) but NOT insane.

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  • 2. At 2:04pm on 09 Apr 2009, QinGuangWang wrote:

    With little hope of redress in the Chinese "justice" system, one could be said to be insane for having any expectation that pleas will be heard. The elderly woman protesting her home being demolished for an olympic venue to the father asking for an investiagtion of the corrupt school construction in Sichuan, end in arrest. The corrupt political system can determine any protest is an offense against order of the state and therefore punish the victim. Outcomes of protests would indicated that it is an irrational act to expect that government to act on behalf of a citizen over an official.

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  • 3. At 2:27pm on 09 Apr 2009, scorpiowenli wrote:

    I from china.this is ture.Freedom is luxury here.Now i know why keep a gun is forbiden here.

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  • 4. At 2:53pm on 09 Apr 2009, Yuri22 wrote:

    More professionalism would be expected of BBC, James. First: check who organized the protests. Petitioners are not staying usually near the campus, nor do they listen to Beida professors. Who made them come and demonstrate? Second, Prof. Sun's views are irrelevant for evaluating the petitioners' sanity. He is a popular teacher (you could interview him!) - but his ideas are personal, stupid as they are. He has no influence whatsoever on the government policy.

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  • 5. At 4:19pm on 09 Apr 2009, yiwudragon wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 6. At 4:28pm on 09 Apr 2009, Pacific_Century wrote:

    A very well written article. Good job, James!

    It is sad to see those poor and helpless petitioners, yet tragedies and social injustice are happening everyday all over China....

    Behind the rapid economic development and the rise of the rich & middle classes are a very large group of deprived mainly from rural areas.

    I really hope our Chinese government would put more dedication to implement an independent justice system. This would be the first major step of reducing social injustice and rampant corruption.

    China still has a very long way to go before becoming a developed and a truely civilized country.

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  • 7. At 4:30pm on 09 Apr 2009, hizento wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 8. At 4:51pm on 09 Apr 2009, chinabuzz wrote:

    China under CCP is a classic irony. The name of bodies that began with ‘People’ or ‘??’ seems never end. To quote few obvious, we have People's Republic of China, People's Court, People's Bank, People's Great Hall, People's Hospital,.........and even People's Currency, People's Daily. Phew!!!

    However, to count the number of concrete things done to the 'People' as in case of the issue raised by James, you need not more than your ten fingers. Under such reality, even of China became a superpower, it merely become a giant without soul.

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  • 9. At 7:17pm on 09 Apr 2009, La_Paz wrote:

    China is facing a rough transition from the social to legal contract. Even so, China must still be responsible for upholding its obligations that it assumed when it joined the UN and as a seatholder on the Security Council. China should be threatened with the loss of its position on the Security Council for failure to honor the rights of its work force. Change is coming, whether the CCP wants it or not!

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  • 10. At 00:47am on 10 Apr 2009, Wil wrote:

    The central government of China should make it easier for these petitions to reach them. Maybe an internet feedback system. However, the emails coming in might be too much and the real cases might be missed out.

    At last, James is highlighting real issue that need correction and not issues with political agenda.

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  • 11. At 02:03am on 10 Apr 2009, tclim38 wrote:

    Some of the petitioners might be legitimate, calling them all insane is probably not fair. However, in a country of 1.3 billion, if people feeling they are mistreated all come out to get justice this way, imagine what kind of society it would look like. You think you can live in a place like that, Mr. Reynolds?

    Every country has people petitioning, protesting. UK is no exception. It is in my view for a foreign journalist to get involve in local stuff like this is not appropriate.

    Everywhere people can be mistreated, or at least they feel they are mistreated, in some way. Not everyone can get justice in the end. The Iraqi people have their country invaded, their lives shattered, no clean water, no electricity, no basic security, no ... Do you think they all can get 'justice'?

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  • 12. At 02:34am on 10 Apr 2009, gpitinc wrote:

    In general, I agree that people’s grievance has to be heard. The government needs to set aside resources to handle properly those in Beijing with various allegations.

    However, we can’t rule out the fact that these are very complex sets of peoples: some of them may well be “trouble makers”, voluntarily or involuntarily. Some cases need to be “thrown out of court”.

    In the USA, with relative healthy legal system, if a case is closed, one is not supposedly to re-open a “re-litigation” for the same cause. A judge has the right to “throw a case out of court” as he may deem appropriate. The complaints of course can appeal to a higher level court. And the case would be heard only if the judge(s) considers that it has merits. Otherwise, it will not be heard. If the complaints try to force themselves into the court, they will be deemed as criminal and will be arrested.

    We cannot use a simple description to depict those petitioners.

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  • 13. At 03:27am on 10 Apr 2009, Cocozk wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 14. At 08:29am on 10 Apr 2009, bridgeking wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 15. At 09:13am on 10 Apr 2009, fclopez wrote:

    Is it insane to petition the courts in China? Possibly so, as a victim of fraud in the PRC myself, I have petitioned the courts on several occasions and I have run into the proverbial brick wall of the Chinese legal system. My experiences have run the gambit from having had lawsuits rejected without any hearings to obviously false statements and fabricated evidence being readily accepted by the Chinese judicial system. My experiences have shown that in many cases the court has pre-decided the case and is just going through the motions to give the illusion of legality. All warfare is based on deception - Sun Tzu

    With many product safety problems involving companies in the PRC one would expect to see a flood of lawsuits in China. However, most westerns will not file a lawsuit in the PRC because the odds of winning are very remote even if you succeed in your case the awards are very small and may not even cover the substantial court costs (up to 5% of the claim) and legal fees. The rules of discovery in the PRC do not exist and there does not seem to be a method of gathering evidence in a case. In addition, all transcripts for hearing are confidential and not even the affected parties have copies of them. Even having a private stenographer is not allowed. The PRC does not have punitive damages, so in many cases it is much more profitable to supply less costly but unsafe products without any substantial risks from the PRC legal system.

    There have been many well published product safety cases in the PRC but so far no lawsuits have been won; Milk scandal and the pet food, Tires failures, contaminated Heparin, and the Florida drywall. Even with a dead child, all lawsuits in the milk case have been rejected by the PRC courts and the lawyers threatened. While some of the actual perpetrators in the milk case have been dealt severe punishments, the victims received virtually nothing. This is the legal system in the PRC.

    The Western press has reported these cases individually but does not seem willing to put all of the pieces to the puzzle together to show the apparent pattern of the PRC legal system.

    While many have made large profits in the PRC, many others have had less than ideal experiences and the legal system in the PRC does not offer any remedies. As for me, doing business in the PRC is just too risky. Perhaps India would be a better solution.

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  • 16. At 09:50am on 10 Apr 2009, Renee1112 wrote:

    Why don't show those pages here and let us take a look? A lot of Chinese here and I can load it into Chinese websites and it can be much more efficient. You can't help them any more by just telling us how bad Chinese government acts here. Of course, it's a much more effecient way to tell the world that Chinese government and CCP is a monster.

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  • 17. At 2:37pm on 10 Apr 2009, heyone wrote:

    Shame on Peking University! As a professor in China's top university, this man obviously has no regard to academic integrity. I wonder how he could arrive at a conclusion that 99% of these 'visitors' are mentally ill without doing any actual diagnosis on these people. Truth means nothing to CCP and its followers.

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  • 18. At 3:04pm on 10 Apr 2009, modagr8 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 19. At 11:18pm on 10 Apr 2009, worlddonotforgetibet wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 20. At 07:35am on 11 Apr 2009, 2008copper wrote:

    we have admit what Professor Sun said about petitions was kind of stupid.
    but remember there is western saying: people shouldn't deserve punishment for his stupid.No one is perfect, Sun is no exception.All of us ever said something in the way of stupid. Professor Sun have apologised, but 200 petitions still won't forgeive him. We can see on TV news some of them really do over reaction. It shows us what Sun said may not wrong at all.

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  • 21. At 08:35am on 11 Apr 2009, rymnd2008 wrote:

    the western bias always magnifies china's problems as unsolvable ones whilst downplays their domestic problems in the west.

    it is clear that if everybody has social justies, there will be less highways, bridges, high-rising buildings; but country like china needs all these to develop in rapid pace. Although some people are suffering, it is a price for rapid development worth paying.

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  • 22. At 11:19am on 12 Apr 2009, catnipcraze wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 23. At 10:33am on 13 Apr 2009, Roadkill wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 24. At 12:53pm on 14 Apr 2009, beijing_2008 wrote:

    # 17 heyone,
    This professor gave a personal opinion. In what way does it represent the views of his employer, Peking University? Thus why should the university be ashamed?
    Rational and logical reasoning seems not to be traits of CCP bashers.

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  • 25. At 1:51pm on 14 Apr 2009, Pacific_Century wrote:

    To #17 heyone,

    "Truth means nothing to CCP and its followers," you said.

    Have you examined everything CCP and its followers said and done since PRC was established in 1949?

    If not, isn't that too impulsive to make such a conclusion?

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  • 26. At 3:12pm on 14 Apr 2009, hizento wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 27. At 02:46am on 15 Apr 2009, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    Don't call anyone insane in China. Professor Sun Dongdong has just made that mistake. In a recent article, the professor who runs Peking University's judicial expertise centre suggested that 99% of the people who repeatedly petition the government are mentally ill. Bad move. Yes, it is a bad move...But, it was also the opinion of Professor Sun Dongdong....

    -Dennis Junior-

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  • 28. At 2:54pm on 15 Apr 2009, bluejeansbj wrote:

    Prof. Sun specializes in judicial psychiatry. He used to teach a course on this subject in Peking University (not sure if he still does) which is highly popular among the students due to his openness and sense of humor. He analyses people's mental illnesses and I believe that in his mind 80% of people are somewhat mentally ill (which is probably true).

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  • 29. At 5:43pm on 15 Apr 2009, i_amTenzin wrote:

    in china people who raise there voice for the rights are called insane i think that could truely be explained ;after all its all about your life ,in china everybody knows judicial organs are completely governed by the communist unlike in a democratic countries where authority could be sued if finds mischievous,petitioners are not tolerated in china many were imprissioned during olympic they didn't violated any law but rather officials felt there blogs were provocative to the masses....what you expect from a govt like CPC which clearly said china will never adopt western style democracy it shows that the authority is desperate to maintain its full control on the chinese politics...we can hope one day china would participate in a democratic world

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  • 30. At 11:37am on 16 Apr 2009, ashblond wrote:

    although i may disagree with james' points view most of the time, i have to say he did a good job this time. Social injustice is a long-time, fundamental problem in China. It has nothing to do with communism, but roots deeply in Chinese culture and tradition. This has to be changed!

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  • 31. At 11:41am on 16 Apr 2009, ashblond wrote:

    I don't understand how can people connect everything negative with CCP. As i said, this is not a new problem created by communism. China never really had true social justice during its whole history, even before 1949.

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  • 32. At 3:10pm on 17 Apr 2009, finne99 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 33. At 07:52am on 28 Apr 2009, lalacarla wrote:

    James, I am utterly disappointed by your article. You obviously missed out a few key facts when you causally suggested that the lesson for Dr Sun and his alikes to learn is simply "don't call people insane".

    Dr Sun's comments do not stop at calling people insane. He proceeded to suggesting that these insane petitioners (which are "99% of all petitioners") should receive psychiatric treatment.

    There is a long history of the Chinese government throwing dissidents into psychiatric institutes to "reform" them. I think this atrocity is committed by many governments, so I believe I don't need to explain it here.

    Dr Sun himself is an official psychiatric expert and one of his jobs is to deliver pyschiatric evaluations of death convicts.

    And when we Chinese say "99%" it's more of a colloquial way of say "all". It carries no statistical sense.

    Now having all these puzzle pieces in place, would you better see the reality, and why not only the petitioners but also many Chinese people across the country are outraged?

    You are totally off the point if you think it's just a professor expressing some controversial yet academically sound view points. Dr Sun was actually exploiting his social status to further victimise the petitioners. In Chinese we say he's "seeking out preys for the tigers". This is evil.

    And you, unfortunately, by undermining the petitioners' tragedies and downplaying the professor's comment, help along as well.

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  • 34. At 08:59am on 01 May 2009, philbysorge wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 35. At 8:00pm on 03 May 2009, Bloofs wrote:

    Claiming someone is 'mentally ill' is the standard response of totalitarian regimes when dealing with political opponents. The Soviet regime did the same. These petitioners are brave, forgetting about money or face and pursuing their desire for justice. Only people like this will secure any real change in China. Good luck to them all.

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