BEIJING – After weeks of bottling up dissent and activism in this country, the tense political situation in China exploded this morning when swarms of petitioners gathered outside Beijing’s United Nations offices in protest.
NBC News came upon the protesters by chance while driving down Beijing’s busy East Third Ring Road around 9:45 a.m. local time on Friday.
By that time, plain-clothed police and other elements of the Public Security Bureau had cordoned off a narrow street sandwiched between the Liangmahe River and the usually sleepy foreign embassy district that surrounds the U.N. headquarters.
Inside the cordon, dozens of petitioners – Chinese citizens demanding an audience with government officials in order to seek compensation or justice for grievances – were being herded by police into commandeered buses, suggesting that China’s security apparatus had been caught by surprise by either the timing or the size of the protest.
Other officers carrying stills and video cameras floated throughout the area documenting the protest and taking shots of participants and passersby who lingered too long.
As police worked to restore order, a second group of petitioners appeared from across the road and then just minutes later, a third group suddenly appeared.
All told, around 100 petitioners protested today, easily one of the biggest recorded protests in the capital in some time.
The protestors came from all around China, traveling to the capital to participate in the age old ritual of taking local grievances from far around the Middle Kingdom directly to the central powers that be for justice.
Their grievances varied – some tearfully told stories of forced seizures of their land, others pointed to wounds suffered at the hands of nameless enemies, while others simply kneeled, cowed by the burden of their suffering.
“Help us, we have no home!” screamed one distressed woman and her son as security forces tried to wrestle her off the ground into a waiting bus. The woman later managed to break free from the cordon with her son while he cried, “I just want to go to school!”
“Long live the United Nations!” bellowed an older petitioner who claimed he had visited his local government office and Public Security Bureau numerous times to air his complaints about compensation from a work injury with little to show for it.
Throughout the protest, petitioners rushed our crew to hand us petitions or slip them into our coat pockets in the hopes that we could put them in the right hands. Some were scrawled on old butcher paper, others were typed and printed in long, bound tomes that detailed their plight.
However, as fast as petitions could be handed to us, officers stepped in to take them out of our hands and disperse the crowd.
Though it was likely that few, if any of the petitioners were familiar with Liu Xiaobo and his Nobel Prize win, the selection of this day – International Human Rights Day – as well as the organization that clearly was put into in this protest suggests that the participants deeply understood the significance of the day.
The brazenness of this protest in the center of China’s diplomatic presence only underscored the urgency.