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Wave of Petitioners Gather in Beijing Ahead of Communist Party Meeting  - 2004-09-10

In recent days, Chinese police have been rounding up thousands of people who have been going to the capital to present their grievances to the government. The round-up is a yearly event before Communist Party leaders hold their annual meeting.

In imperial times, what is now Beijing's sprawling Tiananmen Square was a cluster of ramshackle buildings that housed the thousands who came from the countryside to await audiences and present their petitions to the emperor.

Those dwellings were demolished a half century ago, after the Communist takeover, to make way for the vast square.

Today, a few kilometers south of the square, the tradition of petitioning the highest authority continues in an office along a gray, dingy alleyway. Dozens of people line up at a government appeals office. Its purpose is to hear the complaints of those who come to the capital, after not getting satisfaction in their home provinces.

This 51-year-old man came from Shandong Province to seek redress for his older brother's death. The brother was executed in prison decades ago, because Communist authorities accused him of being a counter-revolutionary.

He says he has been appealing for 26 years. He started petitioning when he was 25, and there has been no solution to his case.

He is one of hundreds of people who line up at the office each day. Standing at a small window, he explains his problem to a clerk, who slams the window in his face. He gets no help.

Later, the man gets into a car with a reporter, and says he is afraid.

He says he fears the Shandong province police, waiting outside, will arrest him. He says the government will not listen to his appeal. Once he is arrested, he says, he could be locked up for anywhere from 10 days to one month.

Outside the petitioners' office, dozens of police cars bearing license plates from faraway provinces wait. When the number of petitioners swells, officers pounce on them and herd them into police vehicles. Human rights advocates say the detained petitioners are then taken back to their home provinces, where they face imprisonment.

Most years, the number of petitioners and the arrests surge in September, as the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee prepares for its annual meeting in Beijing. This year, human rights advocates, say tens of thousands of petitioners have been arrested in the past several days, ahead of the meeting that starts on September 16.

Nicolas Becquelin is with the Human Rights in China group in Hong Kong.

"It is basically periodical clean-up campaigns, and I say 'clean-up' because that's [what] the security apparatus calls them officially," said Mr. Becquelin. "It has a lot to do with preserving the image of prosperity and order of the Chinese capital."

Rights advocates say the police sometimes use violent tactics. Witnesses have reported that detainees have been beaten, and in some cases, drugged for the return home.

With reports that the number of petitioners is rising about nine percent each year, analysts say the government has reason to be concerned about possible unrest.

Most of the petitions are not political, and mostly have to do with legal issues. Mr. Becquelin says many of China's leaders, therefore, treat the petitioners as an embarrassing nuisance, rather than an imminent political threat.

"They are not organized in a political way," he said. "They don't have the ambition to challenge the political order or to challenge the monopoly of the Communist Party, for instance. But nevertheless, they reflect an increasing instability in a number of areas in China, and this is very high concern for the leadership."

China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, which deals with the petitions, says most involve land issues, forced evictions, and migrant workers who go unpaid after working for state-owned enterprises.

Observers say these are all issues that Communist Party leaders plan to take up at their meeting this month.