Issue: 2008: Vol. 7, No. 1, Articles

Bridge Under Water: The Dilemma of the Chinese Petition System

Article Author(s)

Qin Shao

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Qin Shao is Professor of History at The College of New Jersey, Ewing, New Jersey. 
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Bridge Under Water: The Dilemma of the Chinese Petition System“Xinfang,” or petitioning to authorities, has been one of the channels for the Chinese people to air grievances and seek justice since ancient times. But it has taken a new and disturbing shape in the current era of economic reform. In fact, there has been an ever intensifying, nationwide, though uncoordinated, active petition movement in China since the late 1980s. Economic reforms have generated tremendous tensions and corruption, and allowed more personal and political freedom. These changes have fostered an acute consciousness about one’s own interests as separate from and in conflict with that of the state. These factors are in part responsible for the rise of the petition phenomenon. But the system is by and large broken. It has not only failed to ease tensions but also has become part of the problem, further contributing to heightened popular complaints.

The idea that aggrieved people could bring their complaints directly to higher authorities is rooted in ancient Chinese statecraft that defined a society ruled by man – that the benevolent and wise emperor and his upright, powerful officials would correct the wrongdoings of abusive, lower-ranking officials and return justice to the people once they learned about their suffering. It was meant to check local officials, connect the people with a sense of justice from above, and thereby reinforce the emperor’s power and image.

The Chinese Communist Party launched its own petition system in 1951. The Party intended for it to serve as a bridge to closely link the government with the people by conveying the latter’s concerns to relevant authorities for possible solutions. But under Mao, petitioning was infrequently used in individual, localized cases. The increasingly widespread use of this mechanism by the Chinese from remote corners to major urban centers is a new and unique phenomenon of the post-Mao era. But the various petition offices from the region to the center do not have any real power to directly solve any specific issues. The authorities that do possess power to resolve those issues are often the root cause of the complaints in the first place. In other words, rampant institutional corruption has both enabled and disabled the petition system. As such, the system has failed to protect the people and the bridge has been under water. As many cases have lingered for years and even decades and some people have turned into full-time “petition specialists,” the system has become a trap that consumes enormous energy and resources of both the petitioner and the government without serving its stated purpose. This article takes a critical look at the petition system from the perspective of government regulations, the new trends in petitioning, and the perspective of the petitioner in an effort to provide some understanding about the current state of that system.

In October 1995 the State Council issued the “Regulations of Petition” with 44 items as a detailed nationwide guideline to respond to the mounting problems and pressures resulting from the reform. But new conflicts warranted almost immediate and ongoing update. Since then numerous documents and directives titled “petition specifics,” “petition methods,” “urgent notice on petition,” and “rules on orderly petition” were issued on matters concerning the environment, labor, welfare, stock market, mine safety and many others by various government agencies in Beijing. Provincial and municipal governments have also issued their own rules.1 The proliferation of petition-related documents testifies to the seriousness and persistence of the matter.

Not surprisingly, in 2005, the State Council issued a new version of the regulation with 51 items, 90 percent of which was either new or different as significant additions and revisions were made to the 1995 version.2 In the meantime, books and pamphlets such as, “Supplemental Reading to ‘Regulations of Petition'” and “Questions and Answers on ‘Regulations of Petition'” were rushed to bookstores and classrooms of the nation’s law schools.

The revisions of the 2005 Regulations served two purposes. One is to better “regularize,” i.e. control, the petitioners; the other is to compel local officials to take more responsibility in dealing with petitions. The revisions tried to fix a system that was close to its break point. First of all, the official term “xinfang,” defined as petition by “letter, e-mail, fax, telephone, and foot,” is misleading.3 Most petitioners use the term “shangfang”-in-person petition to higher authorities. The difference in terms reflects a significant gap between the government intention and the actual practice. While the government prefers written petitions and includes in its regulations “walk-in petition” as only one of the xinfang forms, people no longer believe that anything short of an in-person presence can resolve their cases. The 2005 revision of the Regulations of Petition was by and large prompted by the dramatic increase of in-person petition cases and also repeated petitions for the same cases. Such cases concentrated in five areas that include urban housing demolition and relocation, rural land seizure, health care, education, and the legal system. In recent years, official sources have consistently identified problems in these areas as the main contributors to heightened popular discontent and social instability in China. In the first eight months of 2004, for instance, various petition offices from the county to the central government levels witnessed 125 percent increase in such cases compared wtih the same period a year previous, of which 31 percent were repeated petitions for the same cases.4

The other alarming trend is the rise of group petitions, termed as “jifang” or “qunfang,” which the government is most vehemently against as any collective action spells potential trouble. The number of people who were involved in group petitions increased more than 20 percent in the first eight months of 2004 compared to the same period in 2003. Also in 2004, the petition cases received by the county, district, province, and the state petition offices grew 11 percent, 14 percent, 17 percent, and 20 percent, respectively, forming a reversed pyramid. This scale shows the ineffectiveness of the local governments in dealing with popular grievances, which in turn puts great pressure on the various state petition offices in Beijing.

Over the years petitioners have often resorted to desperate tactics as their cases drag on for years and even decades. In an extreme case, in 1991 a peasant mother in Henan province lost her 20-year-old son to brutal beatings by the local police and mine bosses. After local authorities dismissed her case, she cut her son’s head off and carried it all the way to Beijing. Thirteen years later, in 2004, she had been compensated a mere 5,000 Yuan and she was still petitioning. The local government, meanwhile, had reportedly spent 40,000 Yuan in efforts to stop her from petitioning.5 The petitioners have also employed other radical means that have caused violent clashes with officials, such as occupying government offices, holding up official transportation, and blocking traffic.

More and more petitioners also choose to come to Beijing during important national festivals and events such as the National Day on October 1 and the annual “two meetings” in March of the National People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference.6 They protest outside those meeting places both to embarrass the government and in hopes of a chance meeting with an upright, powerful official who will magically set things right for them. The government has routinely rounded them up and sent them back to their hometowns, where some of them were beaten, detained, or put under house arrest. To better control the petitioners, the revised 2005 Regulations specify that petitioners are protected by law only when they go to designated offices at scheduled office hours, and that group representatives are limited to no more than five people. Further, those who continue with “abnormal petitions” are threatened with legal consequences.7

The nationwide petition movement, or more accurately, the nationwide failure of the petition system, has put the Party’s claimed highest priority – social stability and harmony – at risk and caused grave concern to Beijing. The 2005 Regulations attempted to compel local officials to improve their dealings with petitioners to reduce the numbers of petitioners coming to the capital. The Regulations connect the performance of officials in handling petition cases with their overall assessment and threaten to punish failed cadres with legal and administrative procedures. The stated purpose is to assure that people receive the same treatment from local officials as from those in Beijing and that their problems would be solved locally.8 The new Regulations also suggest new channels, such as e-mail and telephone, for petitioners, and broader social participation from lawyers and volunteers to help with the petition process.9 These new measures were intended to provide some relief to the overburdened system and to control the scope of the petition movement.

But neither the new channels nor the legal threats are likely to ease the movement any time soon. The system is inherently flawed because the sources of popular grievance, namely rampant corruption, are deeply rooted in the institutions handling the petitions. How can the people expect the very local officials who abused them to serve them justice? Also, the petition system has itself become a reason for increased and repeated petitions because it often invites revenge. One study indicates that among the 632 petitioners surveyed, 56 percent of them kept petitioning because local government, as an act of retribution, attacked and even arrested people who petitioned persistently and thus caused them additional grievances.10

On the other hand, petitioning has gained a life of its own in other ways; it has become a ritual for the petitioners. Take Shanghai as an example, where in-person petitioning is most prevalent. The main municipal petition office is conveniently located downtown, on People’s Square, with a central subway station and many bus stops nearby. There are also petition offices operated by other municipal organs, such as the Bureau of Urban Planning, and the Shanghai People’s Congress, as well as by every district government. But the municipal petition office on the People’s Square is the most popular. In cases of housing disputes involving eviction and loss of property, for instance, some of the residents would head to this office straight from their demolished homes, often carrying their elderly or sick family members on a stretcher, and others would come to show their fresh bruises and hospital records in the aftermath of a violent encounter with government-hired demolition teams.

Part of the attraction of this office, interestingly enough, is in the petitioners themselves. The office is open during the weekdays with Wednesday as the most crowded for those who have issues with demolition and relocation. They all come on Wednesday by a tacit agreement and form a kind of community with a shared plight and purpose.11

Some of the residents had been full-time petitioners for more than a decade and earned a nickname of “petition specialists.” There are also star petitioners among them who take it upon themselves to study relevant official documents and to come up with new strategies and demands. They are highly recognizable, and in fact, an institution at this petition office. While their demands have not been met, they have become unusually learned, experienced, and shrewd in dealing with the authorities, with much to offer to the newcomers. Collectively, these petitioners are well-informed, resourceful, and tenacious. Sometimes they are even more informed on government policies and regulations than the officials who receive them. Any newcomers who step into this office and get their “Petition 101” also feel energized and less alone. These petitioners learn from each other how to fight for their causes, keep each other up to date on new developments, share material, and draw strength from and support one another. The municipal petition office thus has become an unofficial gathering point and self-support center for the petitioners who have built and extended a fellowship there. That the petition office has turned into a politically charged institution of sociability with its own veteran clients is perhaps the most telling evidence of its failure.

Yu Jianrong, a Chinese social scientist specializing in rural development at the Academy of Chinese Social Sciences, has done an in-depth investigation of the petition system through surveys and other means, mainly because prominent among the petitioners are peasants. In late 2004 his officially sponsored research project produced a report that recommends the elimination of the petition system altogether. His argument is at once compelling and utterly obvious: the system simply does not work. Among the 2,000 cases he studied, only three of them were resolved, not due to the institutional mechanism but because certain important individuals and enlightened officials took an interest in those three cases. He further points out the inherent flaw in the petition system that renders it useless – the lack of necessary authority to resolve the issues brought to its offices. On the other hand, according to Yu, the petition system highlights the failure of the law and thus severely diminishes its authority, since it is the legal system that was supposed to deal with most of those issues. Related to that is the reinforcement of the notion that China continues to be a society ruled by man, not by law.12 In short, Yu concludes that the petition system is not only useless, but also harmful.

Yu’s research was part of the process the State Council initiated to review and revise the 1995 petition regulations. As the publication of the 2005 Petition Regulations indicates, the central government did not accept Yu’s suggestion to abolish the petition system. In fact, his proposal caused a heated debate and was highly controversial in China, which is hardly surprising. With the continuous spread of corruption and the weak enforcement of the law, the petition system continues to at least channel popular complaints and give the illusion of hope to people – airing social grievances often helps defuse destructive emotions, and providing illusion is a way to sustain hope when the real thing is missing. That so many petitioners have patiently appealed their cases for years is a case in point. In other words, the petition system, while not solving those cases, has nevertheless helped absorb tensions generated by reforms, at least temporarily. Also, the thousands of officials and staff involved in the petition system depend on it for their positions and jobs. Many of the petitioners I talked to were convinced that those officials and staff were in no rush to solve their cases in order to preserve their own jobs.

Opposition to closing the petition system could also come from unlikely candidates, such as the petitioners themselves who have complained about and suffered from its failure. The meaning of petition for the petitioners is a subject that deserves more attention. Many of the petitioners have endured grave losses of loved ones, homes, land, jobs and other sources of livelihood, and any meaningful focus in life that was central to their material and emotional well-being. Their quotidian lives have been shattered, as has their sense of dignity, trust, justice, and faith in friendship, community, family, and government. Yet society has refused to even acknowledge their loss, and thus denied them the necessary space and opportunity to openly and legitimately mourn that loss. It was often out of utter despair that they embarked on a petition trip, which many of them refer to as “a road with no return,” a reflection of both their determination to pursue justice to the very end and the ineffectiveness of the system.

To many of them, petition becomes not only a channel to seek justice but also an interactive ritual for mourning, a passage to restoring normalcy in life; at least that is what they have hoped for. They also incorporate petition into their daily routines, and it has indeed become a new focus in their lives. On certain weekdays they go to visit local petition offices, and during certain times of the year, – March for instance – they go to Beijing. They have their own community, with friends and acquaintances to meet and chat with on petition trips and around the petition offices. In this long and miserable journey, some of them have given up hope but cannot admit to themselves that they have been defeated. They cannot afford to lose yet another focus in life. So they press on, for petitioning seems to be the only thing left to do, with or without a purpose. Asked about the idea of abolishing the petition system, one long-time petitioner answered with a question, “Then what do I do?” They have no alternative, much less a valid alternative; the petition system has become a trap from which they see no way out.

The epidemic of institutional corruption in China has created a dysfunctional petition system that leaves both parties involved-the government and the petitioner-frustrated but dependent on it and on each other. This co-dependence perpetuates a life of its own. The system will either be invalidated by a determined, thorough reform in the political machine to eliminate corruption or else it will erode the machine itself. Until then, the system will find abundant institutional debris to sustain its inertia and justify its existence as a futile but necessary measure in this transitional period of Chinese society.

  1. See a selected list of more than 30 such regulations issued between 1996 and 2005 in “Xinfang tiaoli” yibentong (Comprehensive reading of “Regulations of Petition”) (Beijing: Fazhi chubanshe, 2005), pp. 276-280.
  2. Cao Kangtai and Wang Xuejun (eds.) Xinfang taoli fudao duben (Supplemental reading to “Regulations of Petition”) (Beijing: Zhongguo fazhi chubanshe, 2005), pp. 15-21.
  3. Cao and Wang (eds.) Supplemental Reading to “Regulations of Petition,” p. 349.
  4. Ibid. p. 16.
  5. Qingnian cankao, 12 May 2004, pp. A13-14.
  6. Cao and Wang (eds.) Supplemental reading to “Regulations of Petition,” pp. 15-16.
  7. Ibid. Pp. 19, 23, 27-30.
  8. Ibid., p. 26.
  9. Ibid., pp, 25, 351-52.
  11. One person I interviewed is a retailer with her own shop and a flexible schedule, and she chose Wednesday as her day off so that she could go to the petition office.