Like hundreds of Chinese who haunt government offices in the capital every day, American Julie Harms is seeking attention and help from national authorities in redressing her grievances against local officials. She could have blended in with the crowds outside all the nondescript buildings she's visited in the past year – if not for her tall frame and strawberry-blond hair.
Harms, 31, has unwittingly become the first and only foreign – and thus the most famous – petitioner in China, with her story and photos splashing across newspapers, magazines and Web sites. For the Houston native, her unlikely celebrity status grew out of a simple yet daunting mission: clearing the name of her Chinese fiancé, imprisoned on what she says is a false charge.
"The decision to petition is not made easily," Harms tells CBS News on her latest trip to Beijing. "It's a very time-consuming and involved process, and really was our last resort."
She is following the footsteps of countless Chinese from around the vast nation who, for centuries, have been bringing their complaints of injustice, and their hopes for resolution, to emperors and then, later on, Communist Party leaders.
In 2004, the last time official data was made available, the Chinese government admitted to processing some 10 million petition cases and receiving more than half a million petitioning visits every year – both figures considered underreported by observers.
Harms' extraordinary ordeal in China started with a chance encounter 11 years ago in Anhui Province, some 600 miles south of Beijing. She was traveling as a Harvard student and met Liu Shiliang, a security guard at a local post office. A brief conversation led to a friendly dinner – and many love letters later, the two were engaged in early 2007 and settled down in Shenzhen, a boomtown near Hong Kong where Liu founded a shipping company.
Their fairy tale turned to a horror story in May of that year when Liu returned to his home village in rural Anhui and was attacked from behind by a neighbor who had been involved in a dispute with Liu's family. Liu was seriously injured and narrowly escaped death, Harms says, and the neighbor was sentenced to five years in prison.
Then came the unexpected twist in February 2008, when the young couple discovered that Liu was placed on a most-wanted list by his hometown police after the local prosecutor charged him with trespassing in the incident. Learning that the legal concept of trespassing is almost unheard of in the Chinese countryside and rarely invoked in minor cases, Harms found the charge against her fiancé ridiculous.
So she began her arduous journey in pursuit of justice. Months of effort in persuading county officials to drop the charge, which Harms says was based on flawed evidence and an illegal approach, got her nowhere.
"In October of last year, we truly began to realize that we may not be able to resolve what seemed like a very small issue at the local level," she recalls, alluding to the neighbor's connection to local authorities. "We worked up through the levels – county to city to provincial and finally national."
Almost every month, Harms rides a bus for two hours from Liu's village to the nearest major city, before switching to an overnight train that takes her to Beijing in 10 hours. Then, rain or shine, she queues up outside various government agencies at the crack of dawn – and feels lucky if she reaches the front of the line before lunchtime.
At first, the sight of Harms was such an oddity that no one believed she was a petitioner.
"People were surprised, perplexed or amused," she says. "Everyone was asking, how could it be possible that a foreigner has come to petition, and kept saying, you must be a journalist or lawyer."
Even when Harms convinced others of her identity in fluent Mandarin, they continued to show her letters and photos, "as if I have some magic power," she says. But she feels equally helpless once inside the heavily guarded gates, greeted by skeptical or indifferent officials who tend to give the same perfunctory responses to whatever arguments she presents.
What really irked the soft-spoken Harms, though, was their dismissive tone about her knowledge on the Chinese legal system as an American. She went out and picked up a stack of Chinese law books ranging from the Constitution to the Guidelines for the Petition Process. Now carrying a worn copy of the Criminal Law in her bulky messenger bag filled with petition letters and other supporting material, Harms cites relevant clauses to officials like a skilled attorney.
"My demand has always been that this case be administered according to Chinese law," she explains. "On paper, Chinese and American laws are quite similar. But in practice, laws are still administered by people. If officials are not carrying out the law according their country's legal guidelines, then I don't think there are going to be just and fair results."
Each trip has brought Harms more disappointment. She refuses to give up, however, especially after Liu was arrested in Shenzhen in June and held without bail in a jail in Anhui.
Harms typed up a one-page letter to President Obama and waited outside the U.S. Embassy for his motorcade during his state visit to China in October. Instead of meeting her fellow Harvard alum, she was detained by Chinese police for several hours.
"In the letter I expressed my support for the president's call for basic universal rights as well as my concern stemming from this personal situation," she says. "I hoped to deliver it to U.S. officials but it didn't quite turn out that way."
Despite all the obstacles, Harms still considers herself the fortunate one; surrounded by petitioners from far-flung provinces with few resources, many in tattered clothes. Many camp out with the entire families in the capital for years – only to see their last glimmer of hope turn to frustration and resignation. Some are even grabbed off the streets and sent home by hired thugs, while others languish in illegal detention centers set up by local governments in the outskirts of Beijing.
"Short term, by reinforcing their power and discouraging people from petitioning, local officials seem to have contributed to social stability," she reflects. "But long term, the country suffers from further corruption, which will affect the credibility and people's trust in the whole system."
That perspective has strengthened Harms' determination to continue petitioning for now, even after Liu was found guilty in early December and sentenced to 10 months in prison, including time served. Realizing the odds against her in having the verdict overturned, Harms nevertheless wants to exhaust all remaining legal options so that, "in the future, other families may have a better chance in obtaining justice in similar situations," she says.
Her dogged fight inside China's legal labyrinth has drawn increasing public attention, earning her strong sympathy and support on the Internet. But some online commentators have questioned her claims and motives, and criticized the domestic media for its "one-sided" coverage in favor of an American.
Harms says she hasn't had time to pay much attention to all the publicity, but having strangers call out her name on the streets and offer words of encouragement has been a heartwarming experience. Most important of all, Harms says the whole episode has brought her and Liu closer to each other and to their families.
"I've seen him only twice — at the trial — since he went to jail and it's definitely made us appreciate the time we do have together," she says. "Although the image may be just one person standing in line, really it's only with the support of family and friends that someone could embark on a journey of petition."
Harms has spared her parents and brother in the United States some of the grueling details of the process. Brushing aside the prospect of becoming a perpetual petitioner, Harms already sees the light at the end of the tunnel: Liu is set to be released on April 16, 2010.
"We are hopeful that, after that, life will get back to normal – whatever normal is."