Petitioners converted to Christianity see plight as part of poor's struggle
A growing number of Chinese with grievances are finding some comfort in religion, and the feeling that they are not alone in their struggle
Wang Chunyan's Christmas wish this year is that she will have warm quilts and thick coats to last her and her family through the frozen winter in Beijing.
Wang, 51, her 49-year-old sister and 45-year-old brother have been homeless and sheltering wherever they can - at train stations, in underpasses, sometimes at cheap hostels - in the capital since their home in Dalian , was forcibly demolished in 2008.
Seeking compensation from her local government, Wang and her family came to Beijing to lobby the central authorities. Although the local government in Dalian was ordered to pay compensation, Wang she said she has not received a yuan so far.
But Wang no longer harbours the bitterness and anger over her misfortune common among petitioners. Instead, she credits her newfound Christian beliefs with helping her transcend hatred towards the authorities who not only demolished her home, but refuse to compensate her.
"Jesus said: 'Those with a heavy burden can come to me'," Wang said. "When we suffer, God will open the door for us."
Wang is one of a growing number of petitioners turning to Christianity. Bringing their grievances over confiscated land, demolished houses, unfair court judgments and other miscarriages of justice, they come to the capital in the hope that the central government will order local authorities to treat them fairly.
But they often spend years in Beijing awaiting an answer.
Seen as troublemakers and a threat to social stability, they are often subjected to physical and mental abuse by law enforcement. Many are sent to illegal detention centres known as "black jails" before being forcibly returned to their hometowns; some are even sent to mental asylums. Until "re-education through labour" was scrapped this year, many were sent to labour camps where many underwent torture.
Xu Yonghai , the leader of the Shengai, or Holy Love, Christian Fellowship, said that, for the petitioners, "99 per cent of their cases will not be resolved". But in recent years he has witnessed Christianity transform many embattled lives.
"The birth of Christ is very relevant to them," he said. "When you have Jesus, you delight in suffering, because in suffering you still have joy."
He said when the petitioners learn that Jesus, too, sought justice for the poor and drown-trodden, it is a source of comfort to them. He also tells petitioners that in seeking their rights, they are a part of the broader push for social justice and progress.
"So you change your mentality," said Xu, a former doctor jailed for two years for sending an essay on church persecution in Liaoning to a US Christian magazine. "You're not just petitioning for yourself, you're actually pushing for the country's progress ... And that's also Jesus' way."
Ge Zhihui , a Beijing petitioner who started a fellowship in her former husband's home in September, said she used to be filled with hatred for the authorities, but her new priority was to introduce Jesus to other petitioners. Twice a week, between 20 and 50 petitioners come to her home for Bible study.
Ge's old home in Beijing's Lugouqiao district was forcibly demolished in 2010. After local police detained her eight-year-old son for six days while she was petitioning in November last year, her bitterness deepened.
"I hated their guts … but since becoming a Christian, my hatred subsided a lot," she said. "Jesus said: Love your enemy. Only when I'm at church can I forget about my grievances."
Police visited Ge's fellowship four or five times since it started three months ago, but she said she would carry on. Calls to Lugouqiao police went unanswered yesterday.
Guo Qinghua, 46, who was jailed and twice sent for hard labour in the past decade for petitioning the government over her dismissal by a former employer, said the gatherings provided her with a "warmth" that she rarely found elsewhere.
"I've heard of Christmas trees and Santa's Christmas presents - but none of that belongs to us," said Guo, who has been sleeping rough outside a police compound since her release from a labour camp in May. "But the birth of Jesus brings us hope … I know he blesses the poor and he seeks justice for poor people like us."