A few posts back I wrote about an old and very poor Chinese lady who picked up live but discarded babies from rubbish tips and nurtured them. Today, I'm back on the subject of China and the Chinese because I have been provoked by John Simpson's article in last week's Spectator(£). In it, he describes what he calls the 'office of last resort', that is, the place where, possibly, ordinary Chinese citizens may take their complaints and requests for compensation and/or justice for wrongs inflicted on them by local government. I stress the word 'possibly' because it is extremely likely that before you and your petition reach this 'office of last resort' you and your family will have been attacked, beaten, jailed and your home demolished. That, you see, is the Chinese way!
So, you would expect this office, or, to give it its proper Chinese title, guojia xinfang ju (the State Bureau for Letters and Calls) to be deserted and, for appearance's sake, staffed by a single clerk with the cushiest job in the world. You would be wrong. According to Simpson, every day there is a crowd of petitioners, usually middle-aged or elderly and all of them poor. They come from all over China and their stories are appalling. They are watched constantly by a policeman who, at the first sign of trouble - and Simpson and his camera crew were definite trouble in police eyes - will call for re-inforcements. Before they arrived, Simpson collected together a handfull of their stories which they thrust upon him. Here are a couple of examples which, as Simpson stresses, cannot be verified by him, but who the hell would go through what these desperate people go through to try and get redress for a pack of lies?
Chen Tanzhang, from Fu'an in Fujian province, is now 54. In 1993 [Eh? That's 19 years ago!]his 8 year old daughter Xiaofang ('Little Fragrance') went missing. The next day, the Public Security Bureau told him to come and pick up her body from its basement car park. It was Xiaofang's. No one helped him: he had to carry her body to the local mortuary. He claims she was raped and murdered by someone close to the deputy party secretary. This man was tried and sentenced to 18 years, but released after a year. Mr. Chen has been petitioning ever since. He has no money, existing only on handouts from friends.
Jiang Shunsheng, from Hunan province, used to be a village party secretary, until he was accused of corruption. His post was taken by a relative of the county party secretary. Mr. Jiang was jailed for a total of 14 months for petitioning Beijing, and while he was in prison several detainees were told to beat him up. His wife was also arrested and abused. Now their 13-year-old son has been refused admission to the local school.
And so on, and on, and on. Apparently this idea of an 'office of last resort' dates back to emperor times when it acted as a sort of safety valve for local disputes with local authorities. The national leadership of the Chinese Communist Party adopted it as a means of distancing themselves from misbehaving local parties and, on the rare occasions when wrongs are (sort of) righted, they gain the credit.
The State Bureau for Letters and Calls - how Orwell would have loved that one!