- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

SHANGHAI, China, March 16 (UPI) — When a group of Shanghai residents were evicted to make way for a new high-rise apartment complex in their neighborhood last year, they fought for several months to get local authorities to listen to their concerns but were told that nothing could be done to save their homes.

In a final act of desperation, they took their dispute to China's legislature, the National People's Congress, and its advisory body, two weeks ago, hoping to voice the complaints to a higher authority.

But like so many others, some of whom traveled thousands of miles to air their grievances to the national legislature, which had its annual meeting last week in Beijing, they were turned away empty handed.

Shortly after arriving in Beijing on March 6, they were rounded-up by plain-clothes police officers and sent back to Shanghai, according to several members of the group who spoke to United Press International.

At least one of the 45 petitioners who went to Beijing was placed under arrest after returning to Shanghai.

"We were treated like vagrants begging for money," said Ma Lian, one of a group of petitioners who were sent back to Shanghai after unsuccessful attempt to meet with NPC delegates. "They (officials) told us to go back to Shanghai and stop making trouble. We wanted to talk with them, but they told us to go away."

Another petitioner, who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity, said the group had arranged a meeting with NPC delegates, who asked them to come. Instead, police were waiting for them at the train station.

"We went to Beijing to be heard, but nobody listened," he said. "The government doesn't really care about ordinary citizens anymore, those public officials just care about making themselves and families richer."

The congress, which runs until Tuesday, is in the midst of selecting a new central government to replace that of Jiang Zemin, who is retiring after more than a decade as president.

The majority of China's so-called "third-generation" leaders are leaving as younger cadres, elected at the 16th Communist Party Congress last November, assume the reigns of power. On Saturday, Vice President Hu Jintao was formally elected as China's new president, a move being followed by appointments to other senior positions within the Chinese leadership.

Despite its mandate to represent the interests of China's 1.3 billion people, the NPC and advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, have little power in the halls of Chinese politics.

The ruling Communist party, which tolerates no opposition to its authority, constitutes the real power behind China's self-styled political system — "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

More than two decades of capitalist-style market reforms have eroded the party's once-dominant role in people's everyday lives and communists are struggling to remain relevant to average Chinese citizens.

Every year, scores of people from all walks of Chinese society converge on Beijing in an attempt to voice their concerns about social issues — whether it be corruption, rising unemployment or stagnating incomes.

China's leadership change is taking place at a time of massive social and economic change, as the nation comes to terms with the shift to a capitalist-style system initiated in the early 1980s by Deng Xiaopeng.

Painful economic reforms in China's redundant industrial sectors are driving unemployed workers into the streets to protest state-owned factory closings, fueling fears of rising social unrest throughout the country. In the Chinese countryside, farmers are clashing with local officials over heavy taxes and farm closures.

Seldom are these grievances given consideration by the nearly 3,000 NPC lawmakers and in many cases attempts to directly petition the congress often end in arrest, and in some cases, a lengthy imprisonment.

According the New York-based Human Rights in China, a 10 petitioners who went to Beijing from Shanghai last week was detained by authorities and has yet to contact relatives and friends.

"Chinese officials should not prevent citizens from presenting petitions to Beijing," Liu Qing, the president of HRIC, said in a statement faxed to foreign news organizations in China last week.

Sometimes the attempts get downright ugly, like when an unemployed worker from northern Heilongjiang province walked into the Beijing offices of Reuter's News Agency last Wednesday, claiming to be wired to a bomb and demanding to be interviewed by foreign journalists. The man, who said that he wanted to "tell the world how corrupt China has become" was later arrested by police and is still being held in custody.

Other attempts receive less publicity, such as the countless individuals who try unsuccessfully to protest outside the proceedings every year and are bundled up by undercover police officers and whisked away.

In recent years, China's legislature has made efforts to shake off its image as a rubber stamp parliament, seeking to boost its constitutional role as a watchdog of the central government and the judicial system.

Last week, the legislature approved a series of wide-sweeping reform initiatives that are expected to bring China's ministerial structure more in-line with Western models by streamlining the old communist system.

But experiences such as the group of petitioners from Shanghai, as well as hundreds of other attempts to lodge complaints with the NPC, are an indication that little movement has been made, observers say.

"China's legislative assembly is gaining ground in some areas, while losing ground in others, most notably in it's mandate of protecting the needs and interests of China's citizenry," said one Western diplomat.

Others say the lawmakers' apparent indifference to the concerns of average Chinese is indicative of how out of touch the Communist-led government has become with the daily quandaries of its vast population.

"Our leaders have no idea what common people go through everyday just to survive," said one petitioner. "Unless our leaders begin to address the real concerns of the citizenry, then a revolution is not far away."

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