American Petitioner in China

Julie Harms, an American and a Harvard graduate, hit the news as she becomes one of the few, or perhaps the first, foreign petitioner in China. Her case was a grievance against the government that her fiancé, Liu Shiliang, was jailed on a charge which she says is not true. She met Liu Shiliang a decade ago while traveling in China. They were engaged in 2007, but the wedding was delayed because of a neighbor dispute that year, and Liu was arrested in June this year on a trespassing charge.

Julie decided to resort to the petition system in Beijing this year as she feels that the local judicial system has failed to resolve the dispute with justice. The letter and visit petition system (xinfang) is an administrative system for hearing complaints and grievances from individuals in China. The state and local bureaus of letters and visits are in charge of receiving letters, calls and visits from individuals or groups.

While the verdict of the case is still to be decided, the experience of petitioning must have let Julie realized the differences of the Chinese and American legal system. As she has commented (from the news report above):

Local authorities are essentially counting on the fact that the local people don't have that much knowledge of the law. I think it's a shame.

Comments on a sina forum point to the legal and cultural gap between China and the US:

新浪网友 (2009-12-18 19:12:50): 外国人在中国上访,是因为他们还按照自己的国家的那种法律制度思维办事, 但是他们不知道这是中国,我们国人都已经习惯了,只是外国人还没有习惯中国的国情而已。 这么说,有些无奈,也有些可悲。但是这是事实!

Westerners petition in China because they are still in the mindset of their country’s legal system. They fail to realise that they are in China. While we Chinese are used to it, Westerners still have to adjust to the Chinese way. It is sad, but is the reality!

手机用户 (2009-12-18 19:50:18): 看来老外还是不了解国情,为法律、人权根本不存在的东西白费劲

Seems Westerners are still unfamiliar with China; they are demanding rule of law and human rights – things which do not exist in China.

新浪网友 (2009-12-18 20:17:46): 信访不过是个摆设罢了,还这会有人把这当回事,与其去上访,还不如花心思想办法把事情在网上炒火了更有效果

The petitioning system is just for show. For people who still think it is useful, I suggest they better popularise their case in the media to create an impact.

A NetEase forum also contains similarly negative comments:

网易北京师范大学网友 (2009-12-16 00:27:19): 我很不想贬低我的祖国,但我不得不说,姑娘带着你的丈夫走吧,中国的三十六计里边走为上策,此时此地的中国确实不是你们美利坚长大的人能够混得下去的地方,而究竟什么时候中国才能成为普适性的人类居住的国家,也是个未知数,至少现在,法律在中国充其量只是摆设,是你这种哈佛毕业生无法了解的。

I don’t want to belittle my country, but I cannot help but say: leave this country together with your husband. China is not a place where you Americans could survive. It is also uncertain when China would become a place with universal values which are suitable for people to live in.  At least, China now does not have rule of law. This is what even a Harvard graduate could not understand.

网易河北衡水网友 (2009-12-13 09:21:01): 在中国这个“神秘”的国度,很多事情是很奇怪的。希望她能最后得到她想要的结果吧。把这事拍成电影吧,在这国度,事情搞大了可能有解决的办法。

In this ‘mysterious’ state, there are a lot of strange things. I hope she would achieve what she hopes for. Make a film about the case – in this country, an issue could be resolved when you draw enough attention.

In his commentary, Xu Jingsheng (徐经胜) points out what Julie Harms fails to comprehend:


Without getting into the details of the case, months of petitioning experience must have made her realise how different China’s culture and legal system are from those of America’s. A few days before she went to the Public Security petitioning bureau, one official told her: “The Public Security treats your case seriously. The minister has given instructions regarding the issues you have raised.” She might still not be able to understand what this sentence means.


Even though many petitioners are totally reasonable in their causes, their issues could not be resolved legally. Very often, the issues could have been resolved in the lower levels. However, the relevant regulations are put aside and neglected, until the higher authority pays attention to them. We have a phenomenon that the legal system would work only when the leadership attach importance to it.


The aim of many petitioners is to raise the attention of the leadership. Only when the leaders pay attention and give instructions could the problems be solved. Otherwise, there is no hope of resolution even if you petition for months or years. Julie Harms would not be able to comprehend this, and to some extent, this incomprehension is a reflection of where our legal system needs much remedy.


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