Beijing should do more to right official wrongs
Petitioning rulers to resolve grievances and disputes is an ancient remedy of last resort for the powerless. The abolition of kings and emperors democratised it. Parliaments are now magnets for so many petitions on all manner of social, political and personal causes that they have formal procedures and rules for receiving them. Even if petitions fail to change anything, this acts as a safety valve for diversity of opinion, discontent and dissent.
With a cultural tradition of petitioning going back centuries, China ought to serve as a good example. Alas, things have not changed much for the better. Ordinary citizens travel to the capital in the slim hope of seeing officials so they can pursue complaints about wrongs done to them or vindication, much like citizens used to make personal pleas to the emperor or a high official. Often they are to be found protesting peacefully in the streets because they feel they have been denied a fair or meaningful hearing
It is not surprising, therefore, that petitioners see the annual gatherings of members of the parliament as offering a better chance of getting official attention. However, as they and their supporters prepared to converge on Beijing this month, police and national security agents stepped up surveillance of those considered unwelcome in the capital to make sure they stayed home. Often they are detained and mistreated by security officials.
Premier Wen Jiabao has said repeatedly in his annual work reports to the National People's Congress that the authorities should attach importance to the handling of petitions. This year he promised to improve the situation. But it seems it will take more than these reminders to overcome the reluctance of officials to allow petitioners to draw attention to grievances against authority. Wen's plea did not stop an NPC deputy in charge of legal affairs in the Guangxi regional legislature from calling for 20 ways of petitioning - such as chanting slogans, distributing written material and staging sit-ins - to be criminalised, with sentences of up to 15 years for serious or persistent offenders who 'seriously disrupt the normal life and work order of local government leaders'. Leaving aside what this means to the constitutional right to protest, such actions by petitioners often arise from frustration with what they see as official indifference to sincerely held grievances.
People have to be desperate to leave their homes and jobs and travel long distances in the hope of getting official attention. That this kind of petitioning still goes on tarnishes China's emergence as a modern world power. To be sure, petitioning of one kind or another happens in all countries. But it should not happen on the scale it does in a country whose premier has set a national goal of achieving social equity.
So long as there are serious shortcomings in the system of law and order and access to independent dispute resolution, petitioning will remain part of life on the mainland, fuelled by complaints arising from administrative actions, official corruption, land disputes, unemployment and the wealth gap. But if the process is to have any value, complainants must feel that they have at least had a hearing.
Hopefully, provincial and municipal officials will respond more positively to Wen's latest plea. But Beijing should tackle other solutions, such as a fairer and more independent legal system, more freedom of information and freer access to public debate. Much petitioning would be unnecessary if people had greater confidence in the system to right official wrongs.