Bridge users tire of 'suicide' petitioners

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 2009, 12:00am

Zhang Dingsheng was so keen not to die during his 'suicide' protest he fastened himself to the bridge he threatened to jump off.

The 61-year-old said his grocery store in Shenzhen had been illegally seized and the city's courts had rejected his petition. Running out of options, the native of Shanxi travelled to Guangzhou's Haizhu bridge and did what at least 19 other people have done since the start of April: warned passers-by he would leap unless he was listened to.

The increasingly frequent suicide protests have caused irritation in Guangzhou. The common complaint isn't that society is so unfair that the only way Mr Zhang can seek justice is through killing himself. What's really bugging people are the traffic jams.

It was just as well Mr Zhang had tied himself to the bridge. In a previous protest, a 66-year-old retired soldier, infuriated by the constant traffic interruptions, clambered up the bridge, lured the protester into shaking his hand and then pushed him off onto a giant inflatable cushion set up below.

'They are disturbing public order, wasting police resources and affecting people's lives,' one local told state media.

The protesters' complaints range from government-backed land grabs to child abduction.

Official numbers show the number of petitions lodged with the government has increased dramatically to more than 13 million each year. But many of them gather dust on a desk or are simply dismissed out of hand.

The media is usually the final channel for frustrated petitioners. Several weeks ago, a disabled man from Huizhou climbed the bridge and demanded a newspaper publish his story about poor medical treatment he received. He said treatment for a hip injury had only made the problem worse. He eventually climbed down when a TV reporter agreed to interview him.

Reporters in China, whether they work for overseas or local media, receive calls, letters, e-mails and faxes every week from petitioners who want their stories told in a bid to pressure the authorities

A worker who had set himself alight in front of his Hong Kong employer's factory after he was refused statutory severance pay in February said he had called reporters, but was told that crooked bosses were everywhere and his case was too trivial.

Guangdong authorities have long blamed petitioners for stirring up trouble and urged them to stay silent for the sake of a harmonious society. Officials organise regular work conferences to discuss how to calm petitioners, and recently a Supreme Court guideline ordered courts nationwide to look for ways to nip potential protests in the bud.

Persistent petitioners are regarded as dissidents, or even mentally disturbed. In March, prominent psychiatrist Sun Dongdong from Peking University said in China Newsweek that '99 per cent of professional petitioners are mentally ill' and should be sent to psychiatric hospitals to keep them from 'harming society'.

A survey of 632 petitioners, conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2006 found that nearly 60 per cent had either been detained or persecuted by local officials, who fear the consequences if the aggrieved were to travel to Beijing and swarm central government departments.

As huge an effort as it seems to quell the wave of petitioners, solving their problems appears even harder.

In May, Zheng Long travelled from Maoming to Haizhu bridge and threatened to jump. His complaint: he couldn't afford the 200,000 yuan (HK$226,000) he was quoted for cancer treatment and was driven out of the city's hospitals.

Mr Zhang wanted to protect his livelihood. Mr Zheng simply wanted to live. Either way, the resulting traffic jams shouldn't be the chief concern.

'We have been taught that petitioners are troublemakers,' wrote prominent commentator Chang Ping on his blog. 'But petitioning is a human right and it will help to reduce social injustice in the long term.'

Next week's briefing will focus on the Yangtze region