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Based in Beijing

OUT IN THE COLD: CHINA’S PETITIONERS

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    An elderly man, petitioning the government for justice, sleeps on the street during a cold night in Beijing.
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    A Han Chinese man sits by the fire in his shack vacated by fellow petitioners.
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    Three Uighur petitioners, left to right, Tursun Ghupar, 33, Nurdun Tuniyaz, 64 and Aygu Tohiyti, 41, sit under a bridge near Beijing's southern railway station.
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    Uighur petitioner Tursun Ghupar, 33, from the far western region of Xinjiang, wears his protest on his chest.
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    Uighur petitioner Nurdun Tuniyaz, 64, smokes a cigarette by the canal where he sleeps on a wooden bench.
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    Uighur petitioner Aygu Tohiyti, 41, sits on the soiled mattress that serves as her dining table, bed and home in Beijing. She has travelled from her hometown of Kashgar, in the far western region of Xinjiang.
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    Three Uighur petitioners, left to right, Nurdun Tuniyaz, 64, Tursun Ghupur, 33, and Aygu Tohiyti, 41, pray during Ramadan.
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    Uighur petitioners cook a communal meal in Beijing. They pool their money and resources for clothes, shelter and food.
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    Petitioners fetch hot water from a "spring" in the ground in a squatter colony.
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    A petitioner hobbles around on wooden crutches in Beijing.
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    Chen Jianzhi, 40, who suffers from a mental illness, and one of her four children, Datien, 3, prepare to sleep in an underpass near Beijing's southern railway station.
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    A petitioner sleeps in Beijing, holding on to her worldly possessions.
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    A petitioner writes messages on wooden cards and letters to China's top political leaders, including President Hu Jintao, hoping to be heard.
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    Petitioner Dai Longqiao, 50, dabs tears from her eyes as she recounts her story. Originally from China's eastern Jiangsu Province, Dai tells of how local government officials grabbed their family land and fish pond in 2004, with no compensation. Dai and her husband, Xia Xianqiao, 62, have been in Beijing to petition at least eight times each year since, sometimes staying for months on end.
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    Petitioner Wang Mei, 51, holds up her petition papers in her rooftop shack in Beijing. Wang has been petitioning in Beijing for four years, after local officials repeatedly tore down a new home she was building.
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    Petitioner Wang Mei, 51, reads through her petition papers in her rooftop shack.
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    Petitioners Xie Degao, 48, and Wang Mei, 51, hold up their petition papers in a room shared by six petitioners.
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    Xu Jiugui, 72, sits in a spot where petitioners had put up canvas tents, now cleared out by the authorities (his tent used to be in Beijing). Xu is originally from the northern city of Dandong, on the China-North Korea border. He is seeking justice for the removal of his identification papers and household registration during the 1960s. He has been petitioning in Beijing since 1986.
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    An elderly petitioner looks through his documents and letters in Beijing.
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    Petitioners gather on a street corner just across from the Beijing southern railway station to sing 'red songs,' songs from China's revolutionary era that ostensibly praise the Communist Party.
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    A petitioner sleeps near a railway in Beijing.
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    An Uighur child clamors for her mother's attention while her father sleeps in their makeshift home next to a canal near Beijing's southern railway station.
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    Abbas, 9, smells a flower. He and his mother, Nurungul Tohti, 35, have been in Beijing since March to petition Abbas' alleged kidnapping and rape by a Han Chinese woman in the northern city of Dalian, where they had previously lived.
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    Nurungul Tohti, 35, converses with a neighbor in a squatter colony of Uigher petitioners in Beijing.
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    Abbas, 9, twirls an umbrella near the canal where he lives with his mother in Beijing, listening as she recounts the story of how he was sexually assaulted.
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    Abbas settles into bed in a canal-side shack in Beijing. He and his mother, Nurungul Tohti, 35, have been in Beijing since March of 2011 to petition Abbas' alleged kidnapping and rape by a Han Chinese woman in the northern city of Dalian, where they had previously lived. THey have since been detained and sent back to Xinjiang, but have again returned to the capital.
Out in the Cold: China’s Petitioners

At one end of the chilly underpass, a young girl wailed. Her father, Liu Guojun, limped over as quickly as he could with a bowl of sweet potatoes he had picked up at a wholesale market’s rubbish heap and roasted over a street-side stove. He hoped it would get her warm.

With his mentally ill wife and three young children in tow, the 47-year-old electrician spent weeks under a bridge near Beijing’s Southern Railway Station at the start of this year (2011), trying to ward off winter with a few blankets, canvas sheets and cardboard. They have a home in China’s central Henan province — over ten hours’ train ride from Beijing — but were forced to sleep rough in the capital in order to right what they see as a terrible wrong.

Liu is among thousands of ordinary Chinese who travel from across the country to the capital to appeal to the central government for justice they cannot get from their local governments, filing papers at the state’s petitions office nearby by day and often sleeping rough by night.

They come – armed with little more than plastic bags of handwritten documents – trying to get compensation for illegal land seizures, unpaid pensions or wages, unfair dismissal from work or unsolved law suits.

Petitioning, a tradition rooted in China’s imperial era, is famously ineffective. Studies by Chinese scholars show that just 0.5 to 5 percent of petitioners actually see their cases resolved. But millions of rural Chinese still believe in the ancient practice. Many think their problems can be solved if only the “emperor” — that is, the central government — knows of their cases. As anachronistic as the practice is, it highlights how China’s Communist Party-controlled legal system is not viewed as an impartial arbiter by millions of Chinese.

Their shanty town – known as the “petitioners’ village” – is an open sore, a reminder of this failing. Among the most marginalized groups in Beijing, some make repeated trips to the capital and stay for years on end, collecting scrap to support themselves or picking up thrown-out food to eat.

In recent years, even as China’s economy has soared, there have been waves of growing unrest at the grassroots and ever-larger numbers of petitioners have flocked to Beijing. With banners, leaflets or messages inscribed on their clothes, they stage protests at every opportunity they have — hoping to be heard. They are often chased down and rounded up by the retrievers or interceptors sent by their hometown governments. Many are then held in illicit or so-called “black” jails, or are summarily sent to labor camp.

But the most persistent among the petitioners keep coming back, with some staying for as long as over ten years in shacks near the railway station. The “petitioners’ village” is raided every now and again by the authorities.

Even as the number of petitioners grows, Beijing has declared that its legal system is now “perfected” and that petitioning is no longer necessary. It has ordered the petitioners home and told local governments to prevent petitioners from heading to the capital. Government interceptors now harass the petitioners who do make it to Beijing.

This battle between rulers and ruled is done in pursuit of the government’s overriding goal: social stability, no matter how superficial.

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