Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Could an End to the Abuse of Chinese Petitioners Be Around the Corner?

Ai Weiwei and associates in front of the Chengdu Bureau for Letters and Visits. Via Flickr/wu fake

A news article published in early May suggests that reform may be in the works for China’s long-standing petitioning system, also known as the Letters and Visits system, which is often associated with scandals involving cruelty and inhumanity. On May 9, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported that in March, the State Bureau for Letters and Visits had ceased issuing rankings of provinces by the numbers of petitioners from each province. Subsequently, some provincial and township authorities also dismantled similar lower-level ranking and evaluation systems.  Though seemingly trivial, the change has serious implications.

 A glimpse into China’s petitioning system

The history of China’s petitioning system is as long as that of Communist China. The system is designed to allow the state to listen to and resolve citizens’ complaints and grievances. The State Bureau for Letters and Visits, as well as associated bureaus at every level of local government, are charged with receiving letters, calls and visits from citizens, directing citizens’ issues to the government bodies that could assist them, and supervising the settlement process. In theory, citizens are not allowed to petition higher-level bureaus unless their issues cannot be resolved by lower-level authorities. In practice, visiting the petitioning bureaus in an ascending order of authority, from the local to the central government level, is often viewed by petitioners as a last resort, to be considered when all other means (including the legal system) fail to bear fruit.

According to a research paper published in the China Quarterly, the second half of 2003 and early 2004 saw a surge in petitioners coming to Beijing, largely because they observed that the new Hu-Wen administration seemed to have a much more accommodating and populist attitude. Probably in response to this increase in petitioners, the central government amended the Regulations of Letters and Visits in late 2004, mandating that the evaluation of public servants take into account their performance in dealing with letters and visits. Around the same time, the State Bureau started ranking provinces by how many petitioners from each province came to Beijing, and provincial governments began to do the same with lower-level authorities.

A vicious cycle

The rankings were originally intended to encourage provincial- and township-level officials to solve petitioners’ problems at the local level. How well civil servants perform in this department has become an increasingly important factor in their evaluation and promotion. According to the Southern Metropolis Daily, in Yongzhou City, Hunan Province, the rankings have been considered as important as GDP performance. In some regions, it has become all-important for officials to prevent petitioners from reaching Beijing: even one case of a local reaching the central-government level bureau could diminish a local official’s career prospects. Thus, local officials are under pressure to stop people from petitioning higher authorities in any way they can.

For years, provincial and local authorities have been accused of abducting petitioners from Beijing by force. Many informal prisons, known as “black jails,” have been set up in Beijing by or for the government to detain petitioners. Hard labor camps and mental asylums are used for these purposes as well. In September 2010, Caijing Magazine reported that a private security company called An Yuan Ding was hired by many local authorities to intercept petitioners, imprison them in secret camps, and send them back to their hometowns. Additionally, in 2009, Xinhua News Agency reported that local authorities devoted considerable amounts of money to bribing the Central Bureau of Letters and Visits to delete petition registrations. Expenditures related to petition interception, including transportation, hiring fees, and bribery – tend to add up tremendously. For example, provincial and township governments in Hunan Province reportedly spent more than one million RMB dealing with Tang Hui. In this regard, the petitioning system has become not only a hotbed of human rights violations, but also a drain on public finances.

Given their bleak prospects, why do waves of petitioners still making their way up through the letters and visits system? For many, the reason is neither that they could manage to elude local officials hunting them, nor that upper-level letters and visits bureaus were willing to address their demands. As rational players in the game, they can sense how fearful the local officials are of their actions, and they use petitioning as a way to intimidate and threaten the officials. The more local officials are panicked by petitioners sneaking off to Beijing, the more determined petitioners are to do so, and the more likely petitioners feel it is that their requests will be answered, not by the ones to whom they petition, but by the local bureaucrats who are following them. To protect themselves, the local governments will do whatever they can to restrain petitioners, yet petitioners try to make their way to Beijing precisely in order to alarm the local officials. This results in a cycle in which the conflict between the petitioner and the official can easily escalate.

Finding a way out

In recent months, there have been several signals that reform is underway to address the inhumanity associated with the petitioning system. In December 2012, several weeks into the Xi-Li administration, tens of thousands of petitioners were rumored to have been released from Jiujing village, one of the largest petitioner concentration camps in Beijing. In January and May of this year, top-level officials from the State Bureau of Letters and Visits and the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Central Committee of the CPC made public speeches against intercepting citizens who “petitioned legally.” As for the news reported on May 9, though it remains to be seen whether the termination of rankings is temporary or permanent, the public and media are willing to believe the situation is improving. As of May 14, both state-run mouthpieces like the People’s Daily and the Xinhua News Agency and liberal media like the Oriental Morning Post, Beijing News and Caijing Magazine had published positive editorial pieces.

Still, the termination of rankings could be a double-edged sword. Many petitioners use the system as a bargaining chip in their struggles with local authorities, since bureaucrats fear they will petition higher-level authorities. Now that petitions are no longer a vital concern for local authorities, officials may ignore the demands of petitioners entirely. A truly functioning petitioning system should not only prohibit the inhumane treatment of petitioners, but should also effectively empower citizens. Currently, the bureaus of letters and visits are neither able to force other government organs to respond to petitioners’ requests, nor monitor the settlement processes.

Ongoing reforms should include the enhancement of the institutional powers of bureaus of letters and visits. On the other hand, the citizens flooding the petitioning offices, which are considered a last resort, reveal the ineffectiveness of other channels for hearing complaints and grievances. Enhancement and clarification of the roles of the People’s Congress, NGOs, the arbitration system and the judiciary branch could lessen the burden on the petitioning system. Such work would be difficult and involved, but it is also necessary if China aspires to set up a safety valve to address citizens’ concerns effectively.

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.
  • Christopher Hayden

    I support human and civil rights for all people in all places.

  • Paul Schoe

    this will be very interesting to follow. Interesting that double edged sword effect that you mention. I do still hope for a positive effect. Reducing the risk to become imprisoned is a major step forwards, and I can’t believe that petitions that bear good grounds, will have no effect at all. Even though they might not directly effect the rating of a province or a lower level entity, they do at least show to Beijing problem areas and thereby places that deserve interest from ‘above’.