If the Tunnel has an End: Review of the Documentary “Petition”

Title: Petition

Directed and filmed by Liang ZHAO

IMDB Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1426381/


Petition (Shang fang) , the practice by which people who feel mistreated by the local justice system seek justice directly to upper-level government officials, has been used for centuries with roots tracing back to Imperial China. Today people with grievances are nominally allowed to travel to Beijing to file their petitions and desperately wait years for the court to resolve their case. However, the opportunity for justice is overshadowed by omens of hopelessness: the extreme impoverished living conditions in deserted suburbs, constant threats of being arrested and being sent back to the hands of local officials, and the threat of expulsion from the capital to prevent political scenes.  Many petitioners were forced to leave in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics to avert such unwanted demonstrations.


Petition movie poster from the Cannes Film Festival.

It took Director Liang Zhao twelve years, from 1996 to 2008,  to record the experiences of a group of petitioners clustered around the Beijing South Railway Station as he shot the astonishing documentary Petition. The film has two cuts: the domestic version (318 minutes), which was never put on screen in most mainstream Chinese cinemas, and the international version (120 minutes), which was released during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. I fortunately got the opportunity to watch the international version via a YouTube channel which collects banned Chinese films.

The 2-hour film is comprised of roughly three story lines. Story I: A Balzacian overview of dozens of petitioners gathering in the outskirts of Beijing for different causes. These characters may be anonymous but typical in China. A grain farmer stakes claims against his local government that refused to pay him for grain sales. A laid-off worker fights for her entitled papers and basic social care. A homeowner loses her house in a forced demolition without getting any compensation. Families of an innocent man who was imprisoned for eight years, a new army recruit that was abused and rendered disabled by higher officials, and a profile of a victim murdered by outlawed criminals. Under the gray skyline of the city, shabbily-dressed crowds of people bear banners and wield hand-written documents over their heads, waiting desperately in line outside the petition office. When they finally get a chance to speak to someone directly, they often burst in tears – and are usually received with impatient scolding, rejections, and various ways of saying “no”, which means another round of endless waiting. During the lengthy procedure of waiting, many risk being beaten by the police and urban security guards, being sent to a detention house or mental institution, or retrieved by local officials who fear their political reputation being tainted by public scandals. Despite the dangers and the bleak chance of success, many petitioners choose to stay and repeat the process, year after year, like Sisyphus rolling his stone.

Story II revolves around a mother-daughter duo from Nanjing. The mother, Qi Huaying, whose husband died during a botched medical procedure in a local hospital, has been petitioning to Beijing since her daughter Xiaojuan was four. As Xiaojuan grew up and became an adolescent, she was disillusioned with her mother’s useless petitioning efforts and left Beijing with her then boyfriend. Unable to find a job and lost all her money on the way to home, she sought the help of a local petition office leader, Zhang Yunquan, who always attempted to appease them and utilize their case for political capital. She became Zhang’s adopted daughter, and Zhang was soon elevated by local media as a moral leader and good servant for the people.  However, it was regarded by her mother as a betrayal, who always saw Zhang as a hypocrite only seeking to feed the media and prevent her from finding real justice.

Xiaojuan went to Beijing with her husband and child and found her mother in 2006, a decade after their breakup. As they reconciled, the darkest elements of petitioning came to the surface. Despite being beaten, threatened, and being repeatedly sent to mental hospitals, the mother chose to continue the impossible mission of petitioning (which after all these years has yielded no results). The daughter attempts to dissuade her. The only compromise they are able to make is that the mother agrees to suspend petitioning before the Olympics to avoid embarrassing her daughter by ending up in a mental hospital again.

Story III resumes with a more macro-view of the Beijing South Station from the perspective of petitioners prior to the 2008 Olympics. The South Station and its adjacent areas were home to the petitioners that tried to take advantage of the the convenient public transportation, cheap housing, and measly small business opportunities (such as map and instant-noodle selling on the platforms). However, as the Olympics drew near, the station needed to be revamped and retrofitted. The petitioner’s temporary housing was demolished, petitioners were expelled, and the “Petition City” was meticulously expunged in every visible way. The last shot of the film features the renovated South Station, pampered and spotless, under the sky lit up by fireworks on the evening of the Olympics Opening Ceremonies.

This is not the first time that sensitive issues such as petitioning in China were touched upon by filmmakers. The official attitude towards covering social justice issues is ambiguous. Despite some officially-approved legal programs on CCTV, there is hardly any media coverage on petitioning in print, TV, or online. For the Communist Party, I guess it is not 100% taboo and at least it is a Communist party which claims to serve the people, and the petition offices do exist and function in their full inefficiency. But no one talks about them openly. As a Beijinger myself, I did know about the existence of the petitioners and I have seen the Petition Office sometimes when riding back from the National Museum on Changan Avenue. However, these people are almost nonexistent to most residents in the city. Even worse than the migrant workers, they were not only economically but also politically invisible. I knew they did exist but I didn’t know how, until I watched this film.

Interestingly, China’s legal system is not purely paperwork (in the last few years we’ve heard the word “legalization” a lot). Sometimes policy relaxes and petitioners are more or less allowed to address their grievances without being frequently harassed. However, during “special occasions” around the Party and State apparatus annual meetings, national people’s congress, and higher-level international summits, petitioners are asked (or told) to get lost both physically and literally. However, the Beijing police apparently treat them relatively well compared to their local officials, as most people remain somewhat hopeful that their petition will be heard by the central government. No matter how bad they are treated in Beijing, returning home without resolution is a worse option.

Is there any real hope for the next generation? The story about Xiaojuan and her mother may offer some hints. Children who grew up with their petitioning parent(s) are mostly unwilling to follow their path. Just like Xiaojuan, they want a normal life, with normal jobs and families. Petitioning seems to be a game for the retired, aged, and most hopeless members of society who have nothing to lose except what time they have left to wait for belated justice.

Will the practice of petitioning end with the passing of the older generation? The director does not give any hints. But I don’t think so. In all nations and societies, there are always small sects of people who value abstract notion of justice above daily bread. And sometimes this sense of justice extends beyond their personal gains and loss. As Xiaojuan’s mother said, her husband has been dead for so many years, but she only wants a fair, acceptable explanation for his death. Is this requirement too much or too little to be ignored? The only thing I know is that the price of seeking truth is high, and not everyone can bear it.

In general, it is a grey-toned film without an inspirational ending. If there is anything to be optimistic about, I feel personally grateful to the director, Mr. Zhao, for presenting the darker side of reality to us with courage and professional devotion. I also feel grateful, and indebted, to the petitioners. They are making history to improve the country’s legal system little by little, as the rejected and unwanted sects of the society, in an unnoticed way. Many of them may never see the day when justice comes, but collectively, their efforts will not be in vain, and not all who wander will be lost.

Watch the film “Petition” on YouTube (w/ English and Chinese subtitles)

Featured photo from Flickr.


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