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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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