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China: A Cold Winter Night with the Petitioners

The suffering of Beijing's petitioners, including one who has spent 52 years waiting for his voice to be heard, came to life when one lawyer stepped out of his office to relive their misery.

Beijing has been a hot spot for visiting petitioners, who travel across the country from different provinces to file administrative or legal appeals to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls. Since most of the petitioners’ cases are related to local corruption, the Central Petition Bureau has become their only hope. However, their hope is usually in vain. Apart from the fact that the government bureau does not have the capacity to handle so many cases, many of the petitioners do not know how to present their cases and there is no one to help them. As a result, they are stuck in Beijing, with no money and no home. To add to their misery, the cold Beijing winter makes them even more vulnerable but not many seem to care.

In order to raise public awareness towards their cause, Zhang Kai, a human rights lawyer decided to swap the comfort of his home to spend a night with them inside a pedestrian subway, near Beijing South railway station. He live-casted what he witnessed at around midnight on December 14, when the temperatures dropped to -7°C, on his microblog.

Through photographs and tweets, Zhang puts us face to face with the misery of petitioners, who continue to call for their rights.

He writes:

今晚来到北京南站,在桥洞里看望访民,你无法想像在繁华的北京桥洞下,路边居住着大量的上访者,最多一个上访五十二年,今晚我要与他们同住桥洞。

ZK: Tonight I come to Beijing South Station and visit the petitioners in the pedestrian subway. You cannot imagine that so many of them are living in the subway underneath this prosperous city. One of them has spent 52 years petitioning and tonight I am going to stay with them in the subway.

His first interview is with a woman, whose tears have not dried since losing her husband more than two years ago:

这里的上访者,你可以停下来问几句话,很快有很多人走来给你递材料,以为你是领导,一个老年人睡在路边,我问她情况,很快她泪流满面诉说她的冤情

ZK: You can stop by and ask them questions here. Many will show you documents of their cases, thinking that you were the government official. An old lady is sleeping on the sidewalk and I interviewed her about her petition case. She told me her story with tears in her eyes.

这是我第一个访问者,她相信上帝,她说如果不是上帝,她早就死了,她的丈夫几年前被公安告知车祸死了,但在几天的时间里就火化了,她都没有看到丈夫尸体。车祸现场报告都没有。她不相信丈夫是这样死的,她怀疑丈夫器官被卖。她被人追杀只能上访,她和我说时很快痛哭流涕。

ZC: She is my first interviewee and she believes in God. She said without God she would have been dead. A couple of years ago, the police told her that her husband was killed in a car crash. However, his body was cremated before she had the chance to take a look at it. There wasn't any report about the car accident and she did not believe that her husband really got killed in a car accident. She suspected his body organs were sold. She felt that someone was trying to kill her and she could only keep petitioning. She kept crying while she spoke.

And the second is with a woman seeking treatment for a medical aliment:

这个住在桥洞陪妈妈上访的女孩得了怪病,需要花很多钱才能救治,但她们不可能承担,只能等待

CK: This girl accompanies her mother for the petition visit. She is suffering from a strange disease and cannot afford any treatment. All they can do is wait.

Away from their homes, Zhang gives us an insight to the daily misery they face in getting by:

这些上访者捡菜叶子为生,路边自建火炉。有时可以捡到骨头做一个汤

ZK: The petitioners pick up leftover vegetables from the market and cook their meals in the street. If they are lucky, they will manage to pick up some leftover bones to make soup.

He further adds:

今晚,我要和这些访民住在这个桥洞,据说这是今年最冷的一夜。然而,更让我感到寒冷的是每个人身上的苦难

ZK: Tonight I would spend a night with the petitioner in this subway. People said that this is the coldest night since the winter came. However, the petitioners’ suffering is colder than the weather.

And gives us a reality check:

天气寒冷,当你在这个桥洞醒来时,可能己经有人悄悄的离开了这个世界。如此冷的天,有人只有一个单被

ZK: The weather is so cold that when you wake up in the subway, someone might have died… some petitioners only have one blanket to fight against the cold.

Helpless, Zhang admits:

每个人都会拉住你向你讲述他们的故事,把你当救星,然而我知道自己无能为力

ZK: Petitioners are so eager to tell you their story. They thought I were their saviour but in fact, I can't help them much.

Through his experience, he comes to a rude awakening:

与访民睡在这桥洞里,我突然感到好平安,这是中国司法的现状与悲剧,一个法律人有必要走入这种真实,或许才会理解法律的精神!

ZK: I feel peaceful sleeping with them. What they have gone through reflects the strategy of the Chinese legal system. A law practitioner should come face to face with this reality in order to understand the spirit of the law.

He continues:

他们不是乞讨者,而是上访者。谁说他们对中国的法治没有贡献呢?用生命去寻求公义,他们是法治的殉葬品,但愿早一天,这一切成为历史

ZK: They are not beggars but petitioners. Who said that they did not contribute to the rule of law in China? They spent their lives in pursue of justice. They sacrifice themselves in the process. I hope this kind of human misery will become history one day.

To add insult to their misery, Zhang says the petitioners have both the weather and law enforcement officers to battle against this winter:

我的脚已冻僵,朋友给我拿了两床被。但她们只有单薄的被子,她们告诉我,他们的被子常被城管和警察抢走。

ZK: My feet are frozen, friends give me two blankets. However, they only have a very thin blanket. They told me that from time to time the city patrol and police would forcibly take away their blankets.

Stories of life and death continue to pour in:

上访了五十二年的老伯,只因当时说了一句话被劳教三年,之后开除公职,一生上访未结婚。他说不想活了,多次绝食自杀

ZK: This old man has been petitioning for 52 years. He said something politically wrong and was sentenced to three years of labour re-education. He lost his official position and never got married. He did not want to live anymore and had tried to commit suicide by going on hunger strikes several times.

And even the young are not immune:

一个二十五岁的学生也在上访,家里房屋被拆。在桥洞口安静的看书,不知他的一生是否也是上访的一生。

ZK: A 25-year-old student petitioner. His house was forcibly demolished. He sits quietly inside the subway and keeps reading a book. I wonder if he would also spend his whole life petitioning.

这是我遇到最年青的独立上访者,二十五岁,他不善言谈,不和我说话,或者是因为这种处境,我流露出了优越感,我顿感惭愧。据说他今年年初来,家被强拆,父亲被打残。

ZK: He is the youngest petitioner I have ever met. Twenty-five years old. He talks very little and refuses to talk to me. Maybe he feels that I am in a superior position. I feel ashamed about that. People said that his father was beaten so badly that he had become disabled during the forced demolition.

And for some, the trauma begins even earlier:

这个孩子一直在哭泣,是被冻醒,还是做了恶梦我不知道。大概五六岁,她的一生会怎么样呢?

ZK: This child continues to cry. Is she feeling too cold or is he having a nightmare? She is just five or six years old. What will her life become like?

As night turns into day, hope dwindles:

己经深夜,上访者还会拿着材料过来。告诉我他们的冤情,很多案件根本没有希望,但我无法劝他们回去。

ZK: It is now very late. Many petitioners still come to show their documents to me and tell me their stories. Many cases have no hope at all, but I fail to persuade them to drop the cases.

But Zhang won't give up and will continue to follow their cause:

我的手已冻僵,无法继续发微博。明早四点就有人去排队上访。我会和他们走一程。最后发一张,愿上帝祝福我们这个国家和这片土地。晚安。

ZK: My hand is now frozen and I cannot tweet anymore. At around 4 o'clock in the morning, the petitioners would leave the subway and line up in the petition office. I would go with them. This is my last tweet tonight. I hope God would bless this country. Good night.

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