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.