The suffering of Beijing's petitioners, including one who has spent 52 years waiting for his voice to be heard, came to life when one lawyer stepped out of his office to relive their misery.
Beijing has been a hot spot for visiting petitioners, who travel across the country from different provinces to file administrative or legal appeals to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls. Since most of the petitioners' cases are related to local corruption, the Central Petition Bureau has become their only hope. However, their hope is usually in vain. Apart from the fact that the government bureau does not have the capacity to handle so many cases, many of the petitioners do not know how to present their cases and there is no one to help them. As a result, they are stuck in Beijing, with no money and no home. To add to their misery, the cold Beijing winter makes them even more vulnerable but not many seem to care.
In order to raise public awareness towards their cause, Zhang Kai, a human rights lawyer decided to swap the comfort of his home to spend a night with them inside a pedestrian subway, near Beijing South railway station. He live-casted what he witnessed at around midnight on December 14, when the temperatures dropped to -7°C, on his microblog.
Through photographs and tweets, Zhang puts us face to face with the misery of petitioners, who continue to call for their rights.
He writes: "Tonight I come to Beijing South Station and visit the petitioners in the pedestrian subway. You cannot imagine that so many of them are living in the subway underneath this prosperous city. One of them has spent 52 years petitioning and tonight I am going to stay with them in the subway."
His first interview is with a woman, whose tears have not dried since losing her husband more than two years ago: "You can stop by and ask them questions here. Many will show you documents of their cases, thinking that you were the government official. An old lady is sleeping on the sidewalk and I interviewed her about her petition case. She told me her story with tears in her eyes.
She is my first interviewee and she believes in God. She said without God she would have been dead. A couple of years ago, the police told her that her husband was killed in a car crash. However, his body was cremated before she had the chance to take a look at it. There wasn't any report about the car accident and she did not believe that her husband really got killed in a car accident. She suspected his body organs were sold. She felt that someone was trying to kill her and she could only keep petitioning. She kept crying while she spoke."
And the second is with a woman seeking treatment for a medical aliment: "This girl accompanies her mother for the petition visit. She is suffering from a strange disease and cannot afford any treatment. All they can do is wait."
Away from their homes, Zhang gives us an insight to the daily misery they face in getting by: "The petitioners pick up leftover vegetables from the market and cook their meals in the street. If they are lucky, they will manage to pick up some leftover bones to make soup."
He further adds: "Tonight I would spend a night with the petitioner in this subway. People said that this is the coldest night since the winter came. However, the petitioners' suffering is colder than the weather."
And gives us a reality check: "The weather is so cold that when you wake up in the subway, someone might have died... some petitioners only have one blanket to fight against the cold."
Helpless, Zhang admits: "Petitioners are so eager to tell you their story. They thought I were their saviour but in fact, I can't help them much."
Through his experience, he comes to a rude awakening: "I feel peaceful sleeping with them. What they have gone through reflects the strategy of the Chinese legal system. A law practitioner should come face to face with this reality in order to understand the spirit of the law."
He continues: "They are not beggars but petitioners. Who said that they did not contribute to the rule of law in China? They spent their lives in pursue of justice. They sacrifice themselves in the process. I hope this kind of human misery will become history one day."
To add insult to their misery, Zhang says the petitioners have both the weather and law enforcement officers to battle against this winter: "My feet are frozen, friends give me two blankets. However, they only have a very thin blanket. They told me that from time to time the city patrol and police would forcibly take away their blankets."
Stories of life and death continue to pour in: "This old man has been petitioning for 52 years. He said something politically wrong and was sentenced to three years of labour re-education. He lost his official position and never got married. He did not want to live anymore and had tried to commit suicide by going on hunger strikes several times."
And even the young are not immune: "A 25-year-old student petitioner. His house was forcibly demolished. He sits quietly inside the subway and keeps reading a book. I wonder if he would also spend his whole life petitioning.
He is the youngest petitioner I have ever met. Twenty-five years old. He talks very little and refuses to talk to me. Maybe he feels that I am in a superior position. I feel ashamed about that. People said that his father was beaten so badly that he had become disabled during the forced demolition."
And for some, the trauma begins even earlier: "This child continues to cry. Is she feeling too cold or is he having a nightmare? She is just five or six years old. What will her life become like?"
As night turns into day, hope dwindles: "It is now very late. Many petitioners still come to show their documents to me and tell me their stories. Many cases have no hope at all, but I fail to persuade them to drop the cases."
But Zhang won't give up and will continue to follow their cause: "My hand is now frozen and I cannot tweet anymore. At around 4 o'clock in the morning, the petitioners would leave the subway and line up in the petition office. I would go with them. This is my last tweet tonight. I hope God would bless this country. Good night."