China's citizen petitioners find cold reception in Beijing
Dismissed and harassed by local officials, a group of parents seeking redress for what they say are their children's vaccine-related disabilities traveled to the capital in a centuries-old tradition.
Yu Tong'An had high hopes last Tuesday morning as he stood in a Beijing park surveying a group of some three-dozen parents who believe that their children – like his teenage son – have been sickened or killed by mandatory vaccinations.Skip to next paragraph
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At last, he thought, enough victims had gathered to make their demand for justice heard at the highest levels of government.
"The Chinese government does not like ordinary people to get together, but that's what we have to do," he said.
A week later, disconsolate and disillusioned, Mr. Yu, a peasant farmer, was taken back to his village in southern China by local officials sent to the capital to catch him. He has not been heard from since he boarded a plane at lunchtime on Monday.
"Frankly, I do not know my next step," he had said shortly before he left. The only Health Ministry official he had been allowed to see "just lied to us," he lamented. "Officials don't deal with our problem. They just kick it from office to office."
Yu's story offers an unusual glimpse into the desperate world of Chinese petitioners seeking redress from central government for wrongdoing by local authorities.
It is a centuries-old tradition that Beijing is keen to stamp out, especially in the runup to important events such as the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China Oct. 1, when the government hopes to present an image of national harmony.
Provincial governments, fearful that citizens might reveal their failings to higher officials, can take extreme measures to derail such critics. Often, they send policemen to Beijing to track petitioners down and stop them from filing their complaints. Sometimes they hold petitioners in illegal "black jails."
Tactic: wear them down
Yu and his fellow protesters, who came from all over China, suffered no such fate last week.
Instead, officials chose to simply wear them down. Perhaps their distress provoked sympathy: they say that their children became crippled after taking polio vaccine or brain-damaged after meningitis vaccine in what appeared to be catastrophic malfunctions of government health drives.
Some have been denied any compensation at all, and have been impoverished by the costs of caring for and treating their children; others complain that the money they had been given was insufficient; yet others say they simply want justice.
"I want the government to punish the official who caused this," said Wang Mingliang, whose 9-month-old daughter died last year after a meningitis vaccination and who claims to have evidence the vaccine was improperly stored.
Almost all the parents seeking redress have secured medical opinions from local hospitals tying their children's death or illness to the vaccinations.
Organizing over IM
Quietly, for a month or so, the parents used Instant Messaging to plan their action in the capital, they explained. Yu, a serial petitioner, says suspicious local officials offered him 6,000 RMB ($830) in what they called a "stability maintenance fee" to remain under house arrest until the end of the 60th anniversary festivities.
Instead, he gave police the slip, he says, and took a roundabout railroad journey to Beijing. Using a precaution familiar among petitioners, he removed the battery from his cellphone so that the police would not be able to track him using GPS.
Once in the capital, he joined other protesters at a clandestine hotel, where nobody asked to register his ID card.
The parents, some cradling their crippled children, first sought an audience at the Health Ministry on Tuesday afternoon. A junior employee met them on the sidewalk and took their personal details before disappearing back into the ministry.
Those details, it seems, were quickly communicated to the protesters' local governments. The next morning, when they returned to the ministry, several of them saw familiar faces among the onlookers – policemen, local Communist party secretaries, county-level petition office bureaucrats, and other officials from their home towns.