How an American used China's traditional petition process in the hope of overturning her fiance's 'unfair' convinction. Lara Farrar, Qian Yanfeng and Xu Fan report
When Julie Harms and Liu Shiliang met in 1998, they were from very different worlds: she was a Harvard graduate, he was a post office security guard in a poor village in Anhui province.
Yet romance blossomed, and when Harms returned to the United States, Liu continued to court her with letters. She moved to China a decade later and agreed to become his wife.
Last year, they were separated again - this time not by an ocean, but jail bars.
Liu, 29, was sentenced last December to 10 months in prison for trespassing, a crime Harms claims he did not commit, leading her to launch a traditional Chinese campaign for justice.
The 31-year-old has attracted media attention here and abroad for her efforts to petition central government officials, a practice used by Chinese citizens to highlight injustice and corruption.
The charges against Liu were filed in October 2008 and related to a fight in Wuhe county in May 2007. Those who witnessed the incident say police were right to arrest and jail Harms' fiance. The American, who speaks fluent Mandarin, claims the conviction was "unfair" as prosecutors fabricated evidence and Anhui authorities failed to follow the law.
"Nothing will be able to compensate for what he has gone through. All the ways in which this has influenced his life, our lives, nothing will compensate for that," said Harms, of Houston, Texas.
Dubbed China's first foreign petitioner by United States news organization CBS, Harms began her frequent visits to Beijing in December 2008. For almost a year, she has lined up outside the gates of the Supreme People's Court and other government offices with dozens of Chinese petitioners who journeyed to the capital to file complaints.
She also waited outside the US Embassy to try and deliver a letter to US President Barack Obama during his visit to China in November. But she failed.
"That has been the most frustrating aspect in a way, to know China does have a legal system that has undergone a lot of changes in the past few years. But as far as implementation, there are still some pretty obvious differences," she said. "If an official at the local level is not fully implementing the guidelines set forth by the national level, in the end it is still the people who suffer most of the consequences."
The practice of xin fang - which literally means appeal through letters and visits, otherwise known as petitioning - dates back to China's imperial past but was formally introduced in the 1950s. A department at every government is set up to collect public complaints and deliver them to higher officials.
But Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and co-founder of an association on petitioning, said the system does not work well. "Because petition departments have no power to solve problems or supervise others to solve them, they simply pass around the information," he said.
As it still costs a lot to take a case to court and there is no other channel for people to talk to the government, the system is still the only way for people to file a complaint. In a developing and transforming stage, conflicts of interest are seen everywhere as people are being relocated, farmers lose their land and workers are laid off during reform of State-owned enterprises.
Yu said that when people petition, they often attempt to make a scene or go in groups to win attention, hoping this can push an issue forward. They also usually go to the highest level government.
"That's why central government offices often see large numbers of protesters, while local offices see fewer," he said.
An official with a district petition department in Shanghai said people file complaints related to problems that can not be settled elsewhere, including court verdicts they believe unfair and relocation compensation they consider not enough.
"But the problems we are able to settle are few," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. "We are trying every means to solve the petitioners' problems, or at least reduce the tension of the conflicts to the minimum."
Steve Dickinson, a China-based lawyer with Harris and Moure, an international law firm based in Seattle, US, said xin fang is now largely symbolic, and rarely delivers results for those who travel hundreds of miles desperately hoping someone in power will pay attention to their cause.
"It is just an exercise. It is not the way you get anything done," he said.
Harms said so far her calls for justice have yielded virtually no response. The Ministry of Public Security told her on Dec 1 last year that officials had been sent to Anhui to investigate, "but when trying to get additional information to know whether they went or when this took place, there was no confirmation".
"Every time you will hear that they believe your concern is important, they will work to resolve it in accordance with the law. That is the language you hear a lot," said the American. "Whether they take our concerns seriously is still based on the information reported back to them from local authorities."
Harms' saga started on May 14, 2007, when Liu Shiliang's family claimed they were attacked by their neighbor, Liu Shixun, 42. The following day, her fiance left their home in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and returned home to Anhui to check on relatives and prepare for their forthcoming wedding.
As there was already friction between the families of Liu Shiliang and Liu Shixun, the former's return to Liucai village was seen as act of revenge. A violent fight ensued, followed by a muddied tale of finger pointing that resulted in the incarceration of two men, both of whom are innocent, say their families.
According to Harms, who was in the US at the time of the incident, Liu Shixun attacked her fiance, leaving him with a severe head injury. She also said photographs show the fight happened near a pigsty off a village path, not in Liu Shixun's home as his family claimed.
"He (Liu Shiliang) was vomiting blood and had basically lost consciousness on the way to the provincial hospital. He was seriously injured," she said.
In a letter Liu Shixun submitted to local officials in July 2008, he wrote that Liu Shiliang brought "20 gangsters" to his home on May 15. They broke in, ransacked the house and beat up his family, the letter said.
"There was no evidence any of this happened," said Harms.
Meanwhile, Liu Shixun's family told China Daily it would have been impossible for their son, who has a "congenital leg condition", to have inflicted such grave injuries.
"My son has a lame leg," said his father Liu Shanyue, 72, as he held a picture of his battered child. "How could he fight a group of men? We didn't hurt Liu Shiliang. We have no idea how he got the head injury."
Liu Shanyue has also petitioned higher officials for the release of his son, who was sentenced in April 2008 to five years in prison for intentional injury. "My son is innocent. He was the victim," he said.
Harms eventually returned with Liu Shiliang to Shenzhen, where months later they discovered he was wanted by police in Anhui on charges of trespassing in relation to the fight. He was detained in June and convicted on Dec 11.
"What I can't understand is why I was accused of trespassing almost a year after the fight," Liu Shiliang wrote in a letter to local authorities on Dec 8, 2008, after learning of the charges against him. "Why didn't they bring the charge earlier?"
Harms believes the evidence prosecutors used to convict him was fabricated.
"There were a lot of inconsistencies. Everything in a normal legal process was disregarded. Any statement from the other side was taken as truth, even if it contradicted earlier statements they might have given on the day of the incident," she said. "Throughout the process there have been a lot of actions that have been unfair."
Liu Shiliang's family claim charges were brought against their son because Li Shixun has a cousin with the local police. But Liu Jiaming, a relative of Liu Shixun, argued: "If we were able to use the power of our relatives, why would Liu Shixun be in prison? We might as well save him from jail."
The local public security bureau, court officials and prosecutors' office declined to comment. Li Xiangqian, a Wuhe county publicity officer, said authorities had acted in accordance with the law.
For now, Harms is waiting to see if a district court will hear her fiance's appeal. He is scheduled for release in April. The couple has only seen each other twice in court since he was arrested in June, which means once again they are communicating via love letters.
The American said they still hope to get married and plan to restart their shipping company in Shenzhen.
"Hopefully we will more or less be able to restore a normal life again. You still have to move forward," she said, adding that she hopes the appeal, successful or not, will illuminate the misconduct of the case.
"At least more attention will be paid to the differences between the law and the way in which it is implemented."
Cao Li contributed to the story
(China Daily 01/06/2010 page7)