Wen's move lends hope for petition reform
Ever since he came to power in 2003, Wen Jiabao has been carefully cultivating his image as 'the people's premier'. His populist approach has helped him stand out from other mainland leaders and has earned him much adulation from ordinary mainlanders. He is always the first to rush to the scenes of major natural disasters to comfort survivors and usually spends the Lunar New Year holiday eating with miners hundreds of metres down in a pit or visiting farmers in the freezing cold.
But his folksy touch has drawn mixed responses among the country's elite, many of whom privately and bitterly complain about his economic management skills and dismiss his populist visits as theatre amid consistent speculation about the business activities of his family members.
Naturally, his unprecedented visit last Monday to the country's top complaints body and his meeting with petitioners to hear their grievances again generated a nationwide debate in the media, on the internet and behind closed doors.
While media commentators and microbloggers hailed Wen's visit, many have also rightly expressed doubts about how much his visit can achieve given the flawed petition system. Many officials also privately wondered what Wen was up to with his highly publicised visit, complaining that while it stirred up a hornets' nest, the central government has shown no sign of seriously overhauling the system and effectively addressing the complaints of millions of petitioners.
Indeed, during a trip to Shenzhen last year to mark its 30th anniversary as a special economic zone, Wen ignited an intense debate at home and abroad by publicly urging major political reform, arguing that without it, China might lose what it has achieved through economic restructuring, and the targets of its modernisation drive might not be reached.
Many interpreted his remarks as a signal that the leadership intended to put political reform on the agenda after 30 years of rapid economic growth, but the debate quickly fizzled, as no concrete measures followed. So it was interesting to see Wen take a swing at another issue that tugs at the heartstrings of millions of mainlanders.
Even as Xinhua hailed Wen's visit at the State Bureau for Letters and Calls as the first by a premier to meet petitioners since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Wen reportedly told a group of eight petitioners that he was not there to address individual cases but to seek their views for the government work report he will deliver at the annual plenary session of the National People's Congress in March.
This shows that even Wen needs to tread carefully on this issue
The roots of the petition system can be traced to the feudal dynasties, when people often threw themselves in front of the carriages of senior mandarins or knelt in front of their offices over injustices.
Although authorities at all levels nowadays have set up petition offices nationwide, millions of today's petitioners, just like their brethren in imperial times, still come to the provincial capitals and Beijing to seek higher-level intervention over such injustices as illegal land seizures, labour disputes and mistreatment by law-enforcement officials. Stories that such petitions have led to justice are often the subjects of popular costume dramas, placing faith in some upright senior mandarins rather than the rule of law.
But the reality is much harsher. Officials at the higher-level petition offices usually fob people off by asking them to fill in forms and sending them home without following up. For the unfortunate ones, lower-level authorities often try to prevent them going to higher authorities by hiring thugs to beat them up or putting them in the so-called black jails.
Still, about 10 million reportedly go to the petition offices each year, and some even quit their jobs and leave their families behind to campaign for years without success.
As many analysts point out, the petitioning phenomenon is a damning indictment of the mainland's ineffective legal system, from which ordinary people cannot get justice, and it will take a long time to resolve this issue in terms of strengthening the rule of law. In this context, it is easy to be cynical about how much Wen's visit can achieve.
But he must be applauded for putting one of the mainland's greatest injustices in the national and international spotlight, and his visit has already pressured provincial and lower-level officials to deal with the issue more properly and humanely. Let's hope that drive gains momentum.