BEIJING — As Chinese have done for generations, Qiu Jie came to the capital to seek justice after being cheated out of his life savings. Instead, he says, officials from his home province lured him to a Beijing hotel, where they slapped him in handcuffs, beat him and took him away.
After they got him back home, they committed him to a police-run psychiatric hospital, where he was tied to a bed for 32 days, Qiu says. When he launched a hunger strike, they placed him on an intravenous drip.
Staff doctors, all police employees, diagnosed him with unspecified "mental disorders," he says, and forced drugs down his throat. After he suffered a minor heart attack, the hospital released him. He believes it would have raised too many questions if he had died in custody.
Seeking justice in the capital is a tradition rooted in China's imperial days, and even today Beijing maintains offices for tens of thousands of petitioners to file complaints against local officials for alleged corruption, theft, even murder.
Experts say the practice of appealing to the central government, even as China seeks to project a modern image in the approach to the Summer Olympics next year in Beijing, reflects a lack of avenues available to ordinary Chinese to fight abuses of power. Most courts remain under the thumb of Communist Party and government officials.
But when they get to Beijing, petitioners still face huge obstacles. A 2004 study found that fewer than one in 500 complaints were ever addressed. Many petitioners are simply referred back to the local authorities they are accusing. Others, like Qiu, face what fellow petitioner Wu Keqin calls "state-sanctioned kidnapping."
Every day, hundreds of provincial prosecutors, local officials, undercover police and hired criminals are working in the capital as "retrievers," those familiar with the system say. Their swagger and brutality have earned them nicknames such as "the wolves" and "the vultures."
"It's implied by the provincial officials who hire them that they're allowed to use violence," said Zhao Tianxin, an activist. "People really hate them but are too afraid to fight back."
The work can be highly lucrative. Officials are willing to pay retrievers well because they know they face the loss of their jobs and party membership, imprisonment and even execution if national authorities decide the complaint against them has merit.
Qiu, 49, says that in 1988, he entrusted the Dalian Municipal Real Estate Bureau with $19,000 for two planned apartments. His family put down 20% and the rest was supplied by his then-employer. The bureau never built the units, nor would it refund his money, Qiu says. His appeals went unheeded, and in 2004 he began petitioning Beijing.
Qiu's account, like that of many petitioners, could not be independently verified. An official at the psychiatric hospital confirmed that Qiu had been a patient there. "But what he told you is not necessarily true," said the woman, who identified herself only by the family name Wang before hanging up.
Today Qiu lives off a small pension from his job at a grain company.
"Retrievers are little more than guard dogs for dark, corrupt officials," he said.
Still, he kept trying, and family members said he was grabbed again in late April and sent back to the psychiatric hospital. He suffered another heart attack, they said, and they were told to supply his medicine themselves -- even though they were refused permission to visit him.
Asked about Qiu, police said he was receiving "forced therapy" because he had been schizophrenic for more than 20 years, and had "seriously disturbed public order by running naked, holding banners and threatening police and officials with knives."
His family dismissed the police version as an excuse. "They're lying. This is ridiculous!" said his wife, Jian Yingfeng. "If Qiu Jie had done any of these things, can you imagine they'd let him go?"
'They'll find me'
On a recent afternoon, several retrievers stood in front of petitioning offices of the National People's Congress and the State Council, China's legislature and Cabinet. They could be distinguished from the stream of bedraggled petitioners by their relatively expensive clothes, cars and what the petitioners call "hunter eyes."
"You feel like a bit of prey passing the predators," said Wang Jinlan, 45 and unemployed. She was fighting to win compensation for her family's $12,000 truck, which she says police in Henan seized after a minor traffic offense. "Even though you know the crocodiles are there, you still have to go through."
Retrievers often recognize their province's most dogged petitioners on sight.
One of them is Hu Cuiying, 61, a retired engineer from Nanjing who estimates she's been picked up and sent home a dozen times in two decades as she has sought compensation for the razing of her extended family's homes.
"Unless I never leave my hotel, they'll find me," she said.