Petition reforms a bid to ease social tensions
Josephine Ma in Beijing
More transparent procedures included in draft amendments
The central government will soon announce reforms to the petition system, hoping a more transparent approach will ease tensions in a society divided by rampant corruption and social injustices.
Encouraged by the populist image of the nation's new leadership, petitioners have flooded into Beijing over the past year.
President Hu Jintao ordered an overhaul of the petition system about three months ago to prevent social tensions from snowballing, according to sources.
A draft amendment to the 1995 State Council Petition Regulation now under discussion is expected to be announced soon.
Under the proposed amendments, more transparent procedures will be introduced, with petition offices required to issue official slips to confirm the acceptance or rejection of petitions within a specified period of time, a source said.
The State Council Petition Bureau is seeking greater powers and resources so that it can play a more active role in resolving petition cases.
Officials now advise local governments to investigate the cases, but most petitioners never receive a reply.
Yu Jianrong, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar who recently conducted a survey of petitioners, found that most were kept in the dark about their complaints.
'Only two in every 1,000 receive a reply slip, and receiving a slip does not mean their problems are resolved,' said Professor Yu, adding the results of his survey had been submitted to the central government.
The central government has been consulting with academics and petition bureau officials on how to reform the system since Mr Hu's order.
It has also stepped up the gathering of information and intelligence on petitioners to better identify the sources of tension, sources said.
The consultations have intensified the debate over whether the system - long criticised by officials, academics and petitioners for failing to resolve cases - should be scrapped.
Some scholars, including Professor Yu, believe the system should be dropped and the public allowed to seek redress through the judicial system.
But Tsinghua University's Kang Xiaoguang disagrees.
'Let's look at the reality in China. Do we have a genuinely independent judiciary system? Do we have a genuinely independent National People's Congress that can punish corrupt officials?' Mr Kang asked.
'It is nonsense to say that we can scrap the petition system because we have a judicial system in place to resolve these problems.'
Instead, Mr Kang said petition offices should be given the authority to efficiently carry out their duties.
'It should be strengthened and improved, not scrapped. If there is no petition system, local officials will act even more outrageously,' he said.
After the Cultural Revolution, people who were persecuted often sought redress from petition offices, which were the only channel for the public to voice their grievances until recent years, when more individuals began turning to the judiciary.
According to official statistics, petitions remain the most popular form of seeking redress among residents of the mainland - especially among the poor and uneducated.
Petition offices across the country received some 10 million cases last year.
The State Council Petition Bureau - the office most frequently used by petitioners - received about 500,000 cases, while the Supreme People's Court received about 200,000.
The Supreme People's Procuratorate and the National People's Congress each received more than 100,000 cases.
The figures may overlap as many petitioners simultaneously file their complaints with several government offices.
However, many never make it to a petition office as they are intercepted by police from their home towns waiting outside the main offices.
Mr Kang said the petition system had become a scam. 'Petition officials collect information and intelligence to report to their superiors,' he said.
'They have no intention of helping petitioners resolve their problems.
'But petitioners believe they can receive help, and often sell all their belongings and borrow money to travel to Beijing.
'It is [like] cheating the people. If they do not intend to help the petitioners, at least they should tell them.'