BEIJING — In March 1997, Jia Hongling was raped by a low-level manager of a mining company in Henan Province. The 28-year-old daughter of a farmer and a construction worker, Jia reported the sexual assault to the police in her hometown of Jiyuan in central China.
That July, the policeman assigned to investigate her allegations invited Jia to a room and then, with two men standing watch outside, raped her, according to Jia's account.
It took Jia eight years of filing complaints in Jiyuan and making trips to Beijing to beg for justice before the first man was sentenced to five years in prison. The policeman in the second incident, however, was never brought to trial — despite a report from the Jiyuan prosecutor's office saying there was "strong evidence" a rape had occurred.
Now 42, Jia still travels to Beijing, lining up at one government office after another to submit forms that she knows probably will just be forwarded back to the Jiyuan city government. Wearing an orange waist pack and lugging a paper bag stuffed with documents that outline her grievances — there was also a wage dispute with a state-owned printing factory — Jia has joined the unknown number of petitioners who converge on China's capital to seek redress.
A pilgrimage of sorts, petitioning is a ritual with ties to imperial times. Today, it is a journey marked largely by futility, emblematic of the distance between official talk of addressing the country's social ills and the reality of life in China for those who don't have the right connections.
In China's sea of 1.3 billion people, the number of petitioners is relatively insignificant. But their stories are a reminder that in spite of China's economic progress, its central government has so far been unwilling to enact deep legal and political reforms that would allow ordinary individuals to challenge officials or their allies.
State media said in 2007 that 10 million complaints were filed each year at the government's central petitioning bureau and its subsidiaries. It's not clear how many individuals that included, or what the figures are today.
"I have presented many complaints at the local level, but nothing gets done," Jia said on a recent afternoon, wiping the sweat from her face and preparing to take a bus to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the main petitioning office in Beijing.
She'd already made her way that morning to a reception office of the National People's Congress, a mostly rubber stamp political body, and the complaints bureau of an organizational department of the Communist Party.
"I went in, they took my name and ID card number and that was it," Jia said. "It was useless."
The details of the petitioning process suggest a system at times more informed by Franz Kafka than Karl Marx.
It is not unusual when people file a complaint against officials at the local petitioning office, as they are legally entitled to do, for the bureau to refer them to the very officials involved in the dispute.
If they then take the complaint to Beijing, their files are often again sent to their home officials. At that point, police or hired security guards are sometimes ordered to find the "troublemakers" and haul them home.
An acquaintance of Jia's, Yuan Junfang, has been to Beijing three times to petition as part of her feud with the police in coastal Jiangsu Province. After a December 2008 accident in which a cargo truck slammed into the bicycle her brother was riding, killing him, Yuan claimed that police in the city of Ganyu accepted bribes from the owner of the truck to reduce the amount of compensation owed.
Yuan's petitioning documents, however, have been sent repeatedly to the police in Ganyu.
Last year, according to Yuan, a family member of hers was approached by the son of a policeman — she named both men — who said, "If there's no easy way to solve this, we'll just have her killed." Yuan, 50, hasn't been to her hometown since.
An official with the discipline and inspection office of the Ganyu traffic police, Shi Qiang, told McClatchy during a phone interview that, "I'd like you to tell her there's no such problem, and she can come home safely."
For those who persist in petitioning after being told by local officials to stop, retribution can involve labor camps or psychiatric wards.
The document from the Jiyuan prosecutor's office noted that Jia was committed to a psychiatric ward for paranoid personality disorder, and seemed to lament that "when she was discharged from hospital, she still wouldn't stop petitioning."
The political bureau of the Jiyuan prosecutor's office made an official available for interview about Jia's case; he acknowledged that it took eight years to sentence her first rapist.
The man, who gave only his surname, Li, also confirmed the authenticity of a report from his office that concluded there was compelling evidence, including semen collected at the time, that the policeman raped Jia.
But Li declined to elaborate much about either case.
"There was an investigation, but there wasn't enough evidence," he said about the alleged second rape, pointing out that the policeman had been on a temporary contract and was fired.
Late last month, Jia was living with four other people in a storage shed near downtown Beijing. It had been converted to two rooms with thin plasterboard walls — a mattress in one room, and a bunk bed and sleeping mat in the other.
With only two cheap plastic fans suspended from the ceiling with wires, the nearly-90 degree heat outside created an oven effect.
One of the men there, Cao Qingyan, explained that like the others, he'd moved to the shed because officials from his home province were using hotel registration information to track him down — a common tactic.
"We spend everyday worrying that someone will come get us, but there's no other way of doing this," said Cao, 45, who kept his good shirt hanging on the wall to avoid it getting soaked with sweat.
Cao began coming to Beijing to petition after his scrap metal recycling store was torn down by the government in Shandong Province during November 2008. In return, according to a signed agreement, he was to receive 1.17 million yuan (about $183,000) and another piece of property.
But after the shop was demolished, Cao was presented with a new contract that canceled the previous terms, called for a payment of only 593,725 yuan, or some $92,500, and did not include any property. Cao, who provided copies of the contract that appeared to support his story, appealed to Beijing for help.
In return, Cao said, on June 30 he was thrown into a white van and driven to Shandong while two burly men took turns sitting on him and punching his sides now and then.
On July 25, four days after Cao told his story to a McClatchy reporter, Beijing police detained him until police from Shandong showed up. He was again taken back to Shandong, Cao later said in a phone conversation.
Three weeks of attempts to speak with officials about Cao's story resulted in hang-ups, denials that requests had been received, and referrals to other departments.
As for Jia, McClatchy asked Li from the prosecutor's office whether she'd been punished in the past. Li insisted that his government had only her best interests in mind.
But he added: "Because we have concerns about her (Jia's) living conditions when she is in Beijing petitioning, we send people from Henan to pick her up and bring her back to Jiyuan."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011