Ear to the ground

Yu Jianrong at his house on the outskirts of Beijing. Behind him is a picture he painted of a petitioner. Hou Zhihui / for China Daily

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Yu Jianrong has a ringside view of China’s rural tribulations. But he prefers to position himself as an observer whose keen insights into the petition system allow his remedies to be palatable to both sides of the social divide.

Yu Jianrong has a lot of guests. They arrive almost every day, unannounced. He does not know any of them. Yet he listens to their stories. And they are harrowing stories. On a recent Sunday morning, Wang Yousheng and Peng Chunying are guided into his house by a peasant woman. Wang and Peng, a middle-aged couple, are farmers from Shaanxi province. Both had been detained for about a year in a labor camp. Wang, handicapped, uses a crutch. Peng seems to suffer from something like autism as she speaks in a manner reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. Using lots of gestures, she describes how she was tortured while in etention.

Yu Jianrong, 48, is a scholar with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), specializing in rural studies. He says he does not know how these people find out where he lives – a compound house in Songzhuang, about 30 km to the east of downtown Beijing.

“I cannot solve any of their problems,” he says. “All I can do is hear them out.”

Sometimes, he offers advice; often, he advises against petitioning. “I say, ‘Don’t go. It’s useless’,” Yu says.

Earlier that same morning, a farmer from Liaoning province finds Yu, after spending two days searching for him in the vicinity. “He went to the Development and Reform Commission, and they directed him here,” Yu tells me.

“What? This must be a joke!” I exclaim in disbelief.

Yu does have a sense of humor. He rarely weeps with the farmers who come to him. Instead, “I make them laugh,” he says.

“Do you see Professor Yu as a kind of Lord Bao?” I ask Peng, referring to the historical figure known for justice, and glorified in countless operas and soap operas.

Peng and her husband do not respond, and only smile whimsically.

Chronicler of rural China

Yu Jianrong has been a chronicler of rural conditions for over a dozen years. But he was not widely known out of the ivory tower until early this year when he used his micro blog to advocate a way to track down missing children. He encouraged netizens, traveling home for the Chinese New Year holiday, to take photos of suspicious targets and post them on their micro blogs. The campaign received widespread media coverage. It was also criticized for invading the privacy of those photographed.

There are about 30,000 files of people like Wang and Peng in Yu’s home, waiting to be catalogued into a computer database. Most of them are petitioners who have exhausted all channels of complaint and were mistreated. But if you think Yu wants to improve the petition system, you are dead wrong.

From the very beginning, Yu has blamed the petition system, rather than those in charge of it, for the conflicts that have flared up. The system is rooted in China’s feudal society, in which ordinary people, seeking to redress grievances, would file petitions all the way to the very top.

“It is this system that has made a mess of our country,” Yu insists. “Every time I express my opinion about it, I touch the heartstrings of officials who work in this field.”

Yu explains that petitioning is how people put pressure on those officials immediately above them by seeking redress from the higher authorities. Because the government has made it a rule that local officials have to address petitioners’ grievances, seeing the appearance of petitioners at higher levels as a failure of local governance, local officials resort to all means to stop petitioners from reaching places like Beijing. Sometimes, this includes illegal detention and even torture.

According to Yu, the root causes of many of these petitions could be quite trivial. In the case of Wang and Peng, it was just a tree. Their grievances become more legitimate after they were treated cruelly by the local authorities. Yet, that is how people believe they can “be put on the same platform” in their duel with the local authorities.

“Once a court issues a verdict, that should be the end of a fight. But now, one can go all the way up to Beijing to appeal. That turns it into a problem that is endlessly unsolvable. Others will imitate this because they know your fear as a local official,” Yu analyzes.

“The one who initiates the petition is not necessarily in the right, but as he makes this choice, he chips away at the edifice of society. And the local authority will go, he is wrong but he can put pressure on me by appealing to higher authorities, which will affect my career, so how should I deal with it?”

As Yu sees it, petitioning aggravates confrontations rather than solves them. More importantly, it undermines the justice system, which should be capable of dealing with grievances at the grassroots.

He proposes changing petition offices into mediation and legal-aid centers. “Petitioning results in a parallel system outside our legal system. It works when a higher official writes an instruction and hands it down,” Yu says.

The most important thing facing China, more than developing democracy, according to Yu, is to strengthen the rule of law. “You have to go by rules,” he emphasizes. “We have mature laws, but this doesn’t mean we have the rule of law because of enforcement deficiencies.”

Close to rural roots

Yu Jianrong did not receive a thorough education while in elementary school. His father, a Communist guerilla fighter, was classified as a “KMT bandit” during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). As a result, the whole family was deprived of residence permits (hukou) and he and his siblings were denied schooling.

At age 8, with the help of a family friend, he got into a school, but was spotted by the class president. “He is a ‘black person’,” she shouted, referring to his hukou-less status, “he should be expelled.”

Yu clutched his desk while the class president ordered others to drag him out. His new dress, made from satchel rags, was torn to pieces in the scuffle. That day, he saw his father in tears – “the only time”

Yu is among the earliest Chinese to accumulate wealth in the glorious-to-be-rich phase of reform and opening-up. He made 2 million yuan ($307,900) from a legal consultancy business in Hainan province by the early 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, he quit his business and drove around the country. He would sit in classes in colleges, seek out scholars whose work he admired, and observe every stratum of Chinese society. “You are a wandering chevalier. Only with solid research can you increase the influence of what you say,” commented Xu Yong, a professor of political science at Wuhan-based Central China Normal University.

Yu enrolled in Xu’s PhD program and in the ensuing years conducted many field trips to rural Hunan, his home province, “following the road Chairman Mao Zedong took for his study of the peasant movement”.

Yu’s unique methodology of investigation would have him chat up a village store owner by buying a lot of stuff there. A village store is the hub of information, and an ideal place from where to survey its psychological landscape. He would find out the pressing issues by spouting glowing comments like “Your village must be doing great and everyone’s very wealthy”, at which point the store keeper would rattle off a list of local problems.

When the village chiefs found out about Yu probing into local issues, they would attempt to present their side of the story. But they would not know his real identity, believing him to be a visiting relative from nearby as he spoke the local dialect.

The couple Wang Yousheng and Peng Chunying at Yu’s house. Raymond Zhou / China Daily

Yu’s studies cover a wide range, from the organized struggle of farmers to Christianity at the grassroots level.

No matter how penetrating or challenging his remarks, Yu does not see himself as an activist. The day before I visited him, he and 50 others drove to a village in Hebei province with carloads of donated books. He broadcast the event on his micro blog, but was careful to point out to me he was not an organizer, even for such an innocuous activity.

Yu paints and writes fiction in his spare time. Portraits, large and small, of petitioners adorn every room in his house, dwarfing the few landscapes. He is a slow writer of fiction, he adds.

“Petitioners have many stories. Everyone has a different story. There is an old lady who comes to me every few months. I cannot solve her problem. But she seems satisfied after talking to me.”

“So, you are somewhat of a psychotherapist to them,” I suggest.

Source: China Daily

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