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China to evict petitioners before Olympics

Aggrieved citizens from China's provinces live in a crowded Beijing village while petitioning the government, which plans to raze the village ahead of the Olympics.

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.

From: China to evict petitioners before Olympics, Peter Ford, The Christian Science Monitor, September 13, 2007

More at: CSM

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