Petitioners should be able to resort to the courts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

Economic downturns exacerbate social unrest and prompt people to air grievances. The central government has responded to the current crisis by directing provincial and municipal officials to pay more attention to complaints by petitioners. This is a step in the right direction. But Beijing should strive for more effective solutions, such as continuing work to make the mainland legal system more effective, expand freedom of information and give freer access to media and public debate. In a modern society, people deserve a fair and independent channel to seek redress against their governments and other official bodies. In this, the rule of law and an independent judiciary are paramount. But despite some reforms, progress has been slow on the mainland.

Petitioning dates back centuries to times when ordinary citizens, as a last resort, travelled to the capital to plead with the emperor or a high official to redress wrongs done to them. It still exists in principle: nowadays protest is a right stipulated by the constitution. But protests are allowed only with official permission - a rare event. Petitioners are not only refused permission or turned away but, especially at politically sensitive times, often detained and mistreated by security officials. The state media turn a blind eye.

But when other remedies are exhausted, petitioning remains a part of life on the mainland. The growing wealth gap, land disputes, unemployment and official corruption are at the root of many grievances. People continue to petition even though they know they are unlikely to get anywhere. This shows that, even if people cannot find a remedy, the process offers a way of raising problems and venting frustration. Complainants would at least feel they have had a hearing. That may well be the ultimate value of the system.

It is interesting that increasing numbers of petitioners are coming to Hong Kong, attracted by our freedom of speech, independent media and authorities' respect for the right to protest. They are taking advantage of relaxed entry-visa rules to join 'petition tours', and staging protests outside the central government's liaison office. Their grievances remain unaddressed but they return home happy, having vented pent-up frustrations. It is good that provincial authorities are responding to Beijing's directive to listen to petitioners' complaints. It would be far better, however, if petitioning became unnecessary because people could resort to the courts.