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.
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None of them made a move, however, when parents forced their way through security gates onto the forecourt of the ministry and unfurled a banner asking "Our children took a tablet: Who is responsible for their disability?"Skip to next paragraph
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That could have earned them a beating by police. Other protesters have suffered that and more, according to international human rights groups. In fact, they vacated the ministry quietly when the police were called, and accepted an offer of lunch from the head of the Health Ministry's petition office, who identified himself only as Mr. Zhang.
Mr. Zhang was polite, and listened to their complaints one by one, several petitioners recounted. But he did not give them the slightest satisfaction.
He said he would order local governments to solve their problems, "but we already know that local governments won't deal with this," said Yi Wenlong, a former trucker who gave up his job two years ago in order to pursue the case of his brain-damaged daughter. "Zhang is just trying to shift the responsibility onto someone else."
It was then that the parents began to bicker among themselves over what to do next. "Because we don't have a leader, our organization is not very good," acknowledged Mr. Yi.
Some wanted to make a dramatic move – throwing themselves into the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, for example. Others simply gave up and returned home. Yu and three other fathers stayed on in Beijing, pondering their options.
They didn't appear to have any new ideas, though, and knew that they could not stay indefinitely. "It's not a question of how long we want to stay," said Yi. "It's how long the officials will allow us to be here."
He and a friend returned to their home province of Shanxi on Friday, in hopes of meeting a journalist from a national newsweekly who was said to be investigating the vaccine story.
On Friday evening, Liang Yongli, another petitioner, agreed to meet local officials who had been hounding him by phone for days. He was detained, he recounted later, held in a hotel overnight, and then forcibly put on a plane to Guangzhou.
On arrival in his home district of Xinhui, he said, he was taken to the local Communist party school, where current party cadres are trained. "They said they kept me to study, but actually it was detention," he complained.
Mr. Liang's daughter, along with Yu's son, were among six children over a two-year period who suffered brain damage after meningitis vaccinations in the same hospital in Guangzhou, Liang said.
He was freed Monday only after his wife and daughter protested outside the municipal government building. "How can they be so dark?" asked his wife, Liu Xueyun, bitterly. "I thought [the Communist party] was a good party, but how could they detain innocent people?"
Liang said he was forced to sign a pledge not to return to Beijing until after the 60th anniversary holiday is over.
Giving up in defeat
Yu, meanwhile, gave himself up on Monday morning, defeated.
"I'm on my own now," he had said in a telephone interview the night before. "My power and capacity are too little. I'm very sad."
Officials from his village had promised to help pay his son's medical bills, he said, and to pay his "stability maintenance fee," even though he had defied them and come to Beijing. "I don't know whether they will keep their promises, though," he added.
At noon on Monday, Yu called his wife to tell her he was getting on a plane home, his wife said. As of Tuesday evening she had heard nothing from or about him since.