No More Petitioning in Beijing

Recently we got an email requesting that we do a piece about this story. The whole story is worth a read, but the gist of it is thus:

Authorities in China are moving to snuff out petitioning, a centuries-old form of protest that brings thousands of aggrieved people to the capital each year seeking justice.

[…] the party’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee posted a notice on its Web site Wednesday giving details: Petitioners should “not seek solutions by visiting Beijing”; instead, they should seek redress locally, and if the case is rejected then central authorities may initiate a review. But bringing cases directly to the capital, the notice implied, would be considered illegal.

“No illegal petitioning is allowed, whether the cases are reasonable or not,” the notice said, adding that people who represent or instigate others to appeal will get “criticism and education.”

It’s widely-accepted that the biggest complaint most mainland Chinese have with their government is corruption. Given that, it’s a potentially destabilizing force (just like any other gripe people have with the people that rule them) and something that the CCP shouldn’t take lightly. So we were a bit surprised by this news, especially as we’d recently observed signs that Beijing was becoming more, not less, receptive to these claims.

Of course, it’s not all bad news. The report also promised that appeals would be dealt with one way or the other within sixty days, which at least prevents petitioners from waiting on edge for years as their petitions float endlessly in limbo (as happens sometimes under the current system). And there’s always the context to be considered. It’s possible this cutback on petitioning is just a temporary measure:

The new rules come as authorities are seeking to keep a lid on protests ahead of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October. One official from the legislative affairs committee said recently that an “improvement” of the petitioning situation was needed to ensure “a harmonious and stable social environment for the celebratory events of the 60th anniversary of new China.”

Whether it’s temporary or permanent, it’s bound to cause some friction. One petitioner quoted in the WSJ hit the nail on the head:

Yang Dan, a petitioner from Honggang village in Hubei province appealing the seizure of her house for a government project, said it is a good idea to solve the problem locally. “But the problem is that most local officials are corrupt,” Ms. Yang said. “Who will supervise the local officials?”

Who, indeed? Given the evident cruelty of some local officials, it seems clear that less oversight is a misguided way to solve the problem and thus, by extension, a misguided method of ensuring security.

But how much of a threat could this actually be to the CCP’s legitimacy? Not much, I don’t think. The number of people with serious grievances — serious enough that they’d even encounter these laws — is relatively small; this isn’t going to change anything for most Chinese people, which is probably why it doesn’t seem to be a huge story.

Putting on our rosiest glasses, there’s another possibility to consider: this system could actually be better. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but then again, how often do you hear about people traveling to Beijing and petitioning and actually getting what they wanted? This system eliminates the need for “black jails” and torture, because it allows corrupt local officials to get away with terminating a case themselves without having to worry about petitioners then running away to Beijing.

Of course, Beijing is still free to review whatever cases they want, and from the WSJ’s wording it sounds as though the reviews of terminated cases will be randomized so that corrupt local authorities’ only effective way of avoiding detection for sure would be to coerce petitioners to withdraw their cases before they are actually terminated. That, of course, could lead to kidnapping, torture, etc.; but then again, isn’t that what’s happening now?

So it’s possible this could improve things. Likely, though? We think not.

0 thoughts on “No More Petitioning in Beijing”

  1. Ideally, China wouldn’t have a petitioning system at all.

    Like you said, few people get their cases resolved by traveling Beijing—and plenty are harrassed or thrown in black jails. I don’t see any room for rosy glasses about citizens sorting things out at home through the system, either: it would mean talking to the exact same police departments and local officials with whom they have grievances (who may resolve their issues in 60 days but might do so using armed thugs).

    Even if petitioning worked perfectly, it would still have the negative effect of undermining courts and other strictly legal forums. You can always petition something, as I understand it, even if you’re simultaneously bringing the issue to court. And you can petition the court itself. And you can transition from a court case that has run out of all appeals to petitioning.

    It would be much better if China were able to deliver justice through judges and arbitrators and mediators. But since that time is a ways off still, especially if local interests are at stake, I suppose petitioning still serves a purpose.

    My guess is that petitioners are seen as a threat for a number of pretty good reasons (from the government’s perspective): 1) they gather from around the country in Beijing and exchange stories and tactics, 2) they know their rights inside out, 3) they aren’t anxious about China’s image (for example, they held those protests during international human rights day last year outside the foreign ministry and they called on Nancy Pelosi to speak out when she visited), and 4) they enjoy a fair degree of sympathy from middle class urbanites.


  2. I suppose it’d be difficult for anyone to say that there should be no petitioning system, though, in light of the fact that courts in China are directly tied to the government and so there’s nothing really to undermine. But I suppose that’s pretty close to what you just said, OTR.


  3. OTR’s last point is the most important for me. For decades the government has not worried about the plight in the countryside, but they made every effort to stablize the urban population. During the financial crisis turned economic crisis turned employment crisis, the government was more concerned with the unemployment of the college graduates in the cities than the migrant workers who were getting laid off by the millions. Tianya’s largest section is devoted to posts about the suffering of the ordinary folks, especially in the rural areas, and the petitioners.


  4. Woodoo makes a good point.

    What struck me most about Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha–more than the individual stories, which seemed, sadly, unexceptional in the suffering they described– was the introduction. In it, the authors noted how Chinese urbanites essentially forgot their rural fcompatriots once reform and opening began. There was a brief fanfare about the riches being made when communes were dissolved, said Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, then essentially nothing for over a decade. Like the problem had been solved.

    Chen and Wu’s statement was a bit of an exaggeration when it was written a few years ago. It is heartening that it comes across as even more of an exaggeration now, with the net ready to boil over each time a rural official appears to have raped some young woman or beaten people up over land. But it’s still not enough.

    China’s situation is not so strange in this regard. Americans, even (or especially?) progressive Americans, tend to be dismissive of the troubles faced by rural “hicks.” Urban Europeans bemoan their backward countryside and express frustration with farmers’ need for government support. But there’s a difference: China is still a majority-rural country, at least in terms of hukou registration.


  5. That said, China is anxious about social equality in a way that few other countries are (as I think we’ve discussed before)—and that’s a very, very good thing. Maybe not enough concern for rural areas. But more real outrage than you’ll get over here in Washington.


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