Chinese use White House petition site to shed light on issues

Upset about plans for a petrochemical plant near her hometown in China, a woman turned to a new method Chinese are using to air their complaints: She posted a petition on the White House’s website. Then, Chinese police asked her to take it down.

Last week’s run-in with internal security agents turned into an unexpected lesson for the woman.

“I didn’t think (the petition) was a big deal and didn’t foresee the ensuing events,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only by the initials she used on the petition, B.Y., for fear of further angering the police.

B.Y., who is in her late 20s, said the officers asked her in a meeting last Friday to delete the petition from the White House open petition site.

Set up in 2011, the “We the People” site allows the public to directly petition the White House. But she said she discovered the site does not allow people to remove petitions so she was unable to comply.

The Chengdu police department declined to comment and would not provide the unlisted number for its domestic security protection branch.

B.Y.’s petition problem, which was first reported by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, shows how prickly Chinese authorities are about Internet dissent, probably particularly when it involves the White House.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has been on edge over plans to build a petrochemical plant 25 miles northwest of the city. The plant is expected to produce 10 million tons of oil and 800,000 tons of ethylene per year. Residents are concerned the plant, operated by state-owned PetroChina, will aggravate air and water pollution, and question its safety because it is near a geologic fault where two deadly earthquakes have occurred in the past five years.

The Internet and social media are China’s most unfettered forums for discussion, and many chafe at increasingly intrusive censorship.

But Chinese discovered the White House petition site was beyond the censors’ reach. Discussions about an unsolved case involving the poisoning of a university student named Zhu Ling in Beijing 18 years ago were being deleted from Chinese sites, so someone turned to the White House site. In a few days, a petition calling for an investigation of a suspect living in the U.S. gathered 100,000 online signatures — the threshold for an official White House response — and kept the discussion alive in China.

B.Y. said she went to the White House site to sign the petition for Zhu Ling. Then, she saw she could start her own petition.

“So, I wrote about Chengdu,” B.Y. said in an interview conducted by text message. Her petition, posted in English on May 7, notes public concern about the project and urges the international community to evaluate the plan and monitor its environmental impact.

The next day, she received a call from the domestic security personnel. “I got a shock today,” she wrote on her Sina Weibo microblog. Two days later, she met with the officers at a police station near her workplace.

“I will be out to have some tea,” she wrote Friday. “If I should not return in two hours, please report me as missing.” Having tea usually means someone has been called by the domestic security personnel for a talk.

“It was merely a chat,” B.Y. wrote later. “They wanted to know what the opposing views were and if there were other issues the public are worried about.”

Asked whether the White House had provided any information to Chinese authorities to help them identify the petition writer, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said it does not disclose users’ information to any outside person or organization.