For centuries, Chinese with grievances against hometown officials have trekked to Beijing to appeal to central authorities for legal redress. They must often stay for months, or longer, living in petitioners' settlements while they pursue their cases.
More than 1,000 such citizens have been warned that they are to be evicted next Wednesday. The capital's largest petitioners' settlement is to be torn down to make way for roads serving the new Beijing South railroad station, due for completion by next year's Olympic Games, according to official notices recently pasted on walls here.
The project illustrates how the Chinese government is using the Games as an opportunity both to beautify the capital and to deal with awkward political problems, say human rights activists. "The government at different levels considers petitioners the enemy," says Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology who has studied the petition system.
"They don't want them to congregate. Now they will be dispersed into cheap hotels elsewhere or end up sleeping under bridges," says Professor Hu.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog group, is calling on the government to halt the demolition. "Petitioners are some of China's most vulnerable citizens, and they have a right to housing while they pursue their legal claims," said Sophie Richardson, the group's Asia advocacy director. "Demolishing the Fengtai settlement only adds insult to injury."
China's petitioning system, known as xinfang, which means "letters and visits," dates back many centuries, allowing ordinary people to appeal to their dynastic rulers to right local wrongs. Today's petitioners seek help on issues ranging from confiscated farmland to corrupt officials to jailed sons.
The central government has been trying to curb the thousands of petitioners who travel from far and wide to Beijing each year, cleansing what the authorities regard as a blot on the capital, by urging provincial governments to resolve their complaints more efficiently.
A 2005 edict to this effect, however, has failed according to a report released last April by the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a government-run think tank. Its survey found that regional governments have simply tried harder, often by force, to prevent petitioners from reaching petition offices in the capital and thus cover up alleged misdeeds.
The CASS report said that 71 percent of petitioners to Beijing complained of increased intimidation and harassment from their local authorities since the new regulations were issued and that 64 percent had been detained at least once. Only five percent said local officials were taking their complaints more seriously.
"The government wants to drive us all back home," says Han Hongbu, a peasant farmer from Shandong province who has been trying for four years to overturn a decision by village-level Communist Party leaders to confiscate and sell his land.
Mr. Han sleeps with three other men on a hard bed, using sacks for sheets, that takes up most of the space in a tiny, cramped room he and his fellow petitioners rent for $2.40 a night in the squalid Fengtai slum. He has come to this maze of narrow lanes, lined by one-story brick and concrete huts, 24 times since 2003, he says, and has been arrested twice.
Most of the petitioners will stay in Beijing even if they are evicted, predicts Professor Hu, "because they have no choice. If they return to their hometowns they risk being sent to labor camps or to psychiatric hospitals" by vengeful local officials angry at the petitioners' efforts to report on them.
"If we go home we'll be arrested or beaten up or sent to a labor camp," says Ma Jing, a neighbor of Han's who claims her son was unfairly jailed. "I've been caught several times by policemen sent here by my local government, but I've always come back."
Chinese law allows the police to sentence petty offenders to up to four years of laojiao, or "reeducation through labor," with no judicial review of the punishment.
The petitioners, who rent their overcrowded rooms from landlords or flop-house owners, are not entitled to any compensation, nor to any relocation assistance. Beijing's muncipal demolition regulations offer such help only to property owners or tenants with long-term rental contracts with the local government.
Officials at the Fengtai Construction Committee, responsible for demolishing the houses and building the new roads, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Though the planned evictions, scheduled for Sept. 19, appear motivated by the effort to complete Asia's largest railroad station before the Olympic Games open next August, "the timing is targeted at the petitioners," argues Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"It is clearly related to the 17th Party Congress," due to open on Oct. 15, at which the ruling Communist Party will set its future course and anoint the next generation of leaders, he says. The meetings, which take place once every five years, are especially sensitive moments in the Chinese political calendar and "the leadership wants a good atmosphere without petitioners," Hu suggests.
That leaves Han, leafing through a satchel full of papers that document his case, even more uncertain of his future. "I have no idea what I will do," he says. "There is no place for me to go."