22 September 2018
A petitioner stands next to his electric bicycle along a street in Kunming in Yunnan province on Nov. 4. Lack of a proper grievance redressal mechanism causes much heartburn in China. Photo: Reuters
A petitioner stands next to his electric bicycle along a street in Kunming in Yunnan province on Nov. 4. Lack of a proper grievance redressal mechanism causes much heartburn in China. Photo: Reuters

POLICY WATCH: Fixing the broken petitioning system

Ask any Chinese citizen about the nation’s grievance redressal system, and you are more likely to be greeted with a big yawn. It is no secret that the country’s petitioning system, a channel designed to deal with complaints from the public, does not offer much succor to those in need as officials try to prevent grievances from reaching the higher-ups rather than dealing with the problems head on. 

A key reason for this, ironically, lies in the current policy itself as it rewards the administrations that manage to bring down the number of petitions and offers a route for local officials to score better in performance assessments. Rather than handle the grievances, officials try to block the petitions at the gate, preventing the lodging of complaints or ignoring those that come in.    

For the harried citizens, some help is however on the way. Realizing that the system is not working as it was intended to, the central government is launching a reform of the petitioning system.   

Under the proposed reform, central authorities will no longer evaluate local governments on the basis of the petitions they manage to reduce, eliminating an incentive for local officials to nix the petitions. As a ranking system is scrapped and the fear of unwanted scrutiny eases, local officials can actually hear the grievances of people and try to resolve their problems.

Beijing News reported last week that central authorities will stop ranking local governments’ “achievements” in reducing petitions, a practice that has been used since 2005 when China adopted a new version of petitioning system.

Under the current system, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls and local bureaus are commissioned to receive letters, calls and visits from individuals or group on suggestions, complaints and grievances. The regulation makes it clear that promotions of local officials would depend on the number of petitions they handle. Fewer petitions would in effect mean that authorities are taking care of the local problems better.

Given that approach, officials often try to control the petitions and in some cases even detain people known to be regular “trouble-makers” or those that try to take their petitions to higher-ups. Such petitions are treated as the origin of social unrest.

Fed up with local officials’ attitude on issues such as land grabs and forcible evictions from homes, there have been many cases of people traveling all the way to Beijing in the hope that their voices will at least be heard there.

With the abolishment of the ranking under the proposed reform, it is hoped that local officials will devote their efforts to dealing with the public grievances, rather than trying to intercept the petitions and wasting public money and human resources on such efforts.

Many experts, including the renowned professor Yu Jianrong, who heads the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, have called for further scrutiny into the petitioning system, especially looking at the sometimes brutal interception methods.

Petitioning to authorities, also known as “Xinfang”, has been one of the channels for the Chinese people to air grievances and seek justice since ancient times.

People can lodge complaints when their rights are infringed upon as a result of the abuse of power on the part of authorities, enterprises, public institutions, civil groups or their employees. They can also offer comments or suggestions regarding the work of the above-mentioned entities and their employees.

In July, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls opened an online petition website to accept public petitions through the internet. The bureau aims to use the online platform to ensure transparency and improve public oversight. Authorities will need to do more work to improve the system and make it more convenient for petitioners to have their voices heard.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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