Petitioning past its use-by date amid rising social discontent
Several hundred officials in charge of 'petitioning' - one of the most controversial professions on the mainland - converged on the Great Hall of the People on Friday for a two-day meeting.
The top leaders, including President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, met the delegates for a photo call as a significant gesture to show their support.
Zhou Yongkang, the mainland's highest-ranking official in charge of law and order, praised the 'dedication' of the officials in charge of petitioning and urged them to work harder to protect the legal rights of the petitioners and to maintain social stability.
The presence of those top leaders was clearly aimed at bolstering support for the petition system at a time when mainland authorities are faced with a growing surge of social discontent over official corruption and injustice.
Millions of people each year swarm the State Bureau for Letters and Calls in Beijing and its local offices, also known as 'petitioning bureaus'.
That is unfortunate.
History has shown that the petition system has proven to be not only an ineffective mechanism to deal with people's grievances but more importantly a serious impediment for the mainland to promote rule of law.
Instead of spending billions of yuan each year to maintain the operations of the petition system, leaders should consider abolishing the whole system and instead spend money and resources on boosting the country's legal system.
The petition system derives from an ancient tradition that saw people with grievances go to local authorities or even the mandarins in the capital for help.
Since the founding of the People's Republic, the leadership has set up petitioning bureaus, from the central to local government levels, but the effectiveness and the role of the system faces increasing scrutiny.
First of all, the petitioning bureaus have no real power to deal with the complaints, as the best they can do is refer the cases back to the departments or the localities about which the aggrieved people complained in the first place.
More importantly, the petition system has strengthened many people's inherent belief in the rule by people instead of the rule of law.
Chinese folklore is full of stories and dramas in which people with grievances succeeded in realising justice after petitioning non-stop to various local officials until finding an upright official willing to intervene.
These days, many people even refuse to accept court judgments, and instead of seeking legal means for an appeal, they try the petitioning offices and hope to find an upright official to help them.
This means that more and more people are swarming the petitioning bureau office in Beijing, where thousands of people visit each day and many even camp for years.
As this has become a major embarrassment for the leadership, they have warned local petitioning officials that they could face punishment if the people from their jurisdictions are found camping outside the central government's petitioning office.
This has prompted some local petitioning officials to set up illegal detention centres known as black jails to imprison petitioners. These black jails, well documented in the overseas and domestic media, have triggered widespread condemnation and created even bigger embarrassments for the leadership.