BEIJING – A dozen residents of a central Chinese city protested the demolition of their homes by drinking pesticide in Beijing in a desperate bid for attention that underscores the failures of a decades-old petitioning system.
The 12 survived the protest Tuesday near a historic watchtower in the heart of China's capital after police sent them to a hospital, where they were being treated Wednesday for poisoning, said Wang Yuping, one of the residents.
Chinese petitioners sometimes are driven to extreme measures as their frustration boils over after years of unresolved grievances and routine beatings by local authorities.
Wang, 40, and the others had traveled to Beijing from a district in Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei province, to draw attention to their complaints. Wang described the protest as a group suicide attempt.
"We have been petitioning for so many years, but either we have been dragged back home or locked in secret jails and beaten, and no one has been willing to help us," Wang said by telephone. "We felt like there was no hope left."
Each petitioner drank about 50 milliliters (1.7 ounces) of pesticide, Wang said, then lay down on the ground until police bundled them into vehicles and drove them to a hospital.
"I felt dizzy and nauseous," he said from a hospital in the southwestern Fengtai district.
Wang said the petitioners have been unsuccessfully seeking redress since 2010 for the razing of their homes by local authorities who provided little or no compensation.
Local government and police offices in Wuhan could not be reached by phone.
Every year in China, millions of complaints are filed about what petitioners see as injustice or incompetence by local officials in issues such as land expropriation, forced home demolitions and labor disputes, or the failure of local authorities to prosecute crimes.
The system is criticized as ineffective and being prone to abuse. Petitioners are often met with violence when they attempt to take their cases to Beijing, with local governments sending "interceptors" to stop them — with force — and keep them in informal "black jails" until they can be sent home.
Last month, Chinese officials announced steps to reform the petitioning system by diverting cases to courts and improving ways for complaints to be lodged online. But critics say the measures are unlikely to help as long as the judiciary is controlled by the Communist Party.
Liu Feiyue, a Wuhan-based veteran activist who runs a rights monitoring network, said he receives reports about petitioners hurting themselves or attempting to take their lives at least once a month. Some have jumped off buildings, cut themselves or self-immolated.
In some cases like Tuesday's protest, the petitioners are treading a thin line between a suicide attempt and a desperate plea for help, Liu said.
"They have been petitioning for so many years, and the authorities either don't pay attention or they lie to them or deny any responsibility," Liu said by phone. "The petitioners end up taking extreme measures because they hope it will attract the attention of some officials who might solve their problems. This is definitely one of their considerations."
In August, state media reported that more than 10 people drank pesticide in an apparent group suicide bid in northeastern Beijing. The reports carried few details, though overseas news websites said they were parents of military veterans from the northeastern city of Harbin who had been petitioning unsuccessfully for years to get the city's railway bureau to hire their children.