Not so appealing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2011, 12:00am

In the waning days of the year of the tiger, Premier Wen Jiabao paid a surprise visit to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls to meet aggrieved petitioners from various parts of the country. This was the first such meeting in the 61-year history of the People's Republic.

In doing so, Wen reaffirmed his reputation as a man of the people - but it is not clear what else he achieved. For one thing, while the visit was unprecedented, it may well have been staged so that Wen only met petitioners who had been cleared to see him.

The premier, who is known for his liberal utterances, is something of a mystery. For example, in a CNN interview aired last October, he called freedom of speech indispensable and said 'the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible'. But his words were censored on the mainland and, since then, there have been no noticeable moves on the part of the government to allow the democracy and freedom that he claimed to champion.

Indeed, Wen seems unable or unwilling to change the government, leading some to call him a hypocrite. Last year, prominent author Yu Jie wrote a book which was published in Hong Kong since it couldn't be published on the mainland. Titled China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, it accused him of putting on a show when actually he and President Hu Jintao 'are on a tandem bike, heading in the same direction, playing the 'good guy, bad guy' routine'.

To be fair, this is probably going too far. True, Wen is head of the government but he has to act within the confines of the ruling Communist Party. He cannot bring about change by waving a magic wand.

There is a consistent theme to his remarks. And what he said last week at the petition office echoed his words on CNN.

Last October, he said it was important to create the conditions to allow the people to criticise the government. 'It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people,' he said.

Last week, he told petitioners: 'I came here to seek your opinions on the government's work. Please don't hold anything back and give me the facts.' He urged citizens to criticise the government and to speak out about injustice.

Moreover, he urged officials in charge of complaints to be patient with petitioners and to address their grievances. 'Our government is a government of the people, and our power is granted by the people,' he was quoted as saying.

The problem is that, in reality, the central government actively discourages petitioners from going to Beijing. Besides, petitioners who successfully make it to the capital represent a black mark against local officials since their complaints are seen as a sign of poor performance by the officials.

Thus, local officials go to great lengths to prevent people with grievances from travelling to the capital to complain, including putting them in so-called 'black jails' and, sometimes, incarcerating them in psychiatric institutions. And the central government turns a blind eye to such activities.

By meeting petitioners, Wen has no doubt encouraged additional numbers of the aggrieved to travel to Beijing. As a result, there will be increased instances of abuse of power by officials seeking to stem such movements. Thus, Wen's visit and comments, though no doubt well-intentioned, could inadvertently create many more cases of abuse.

As premier, Wen must know that the system of petitions does not work. If he wants to help petitioners, he should at least change the evaluation system so that local officials will not have incentives to persecute petitioners. He should certainly not encourage aggrieved citizens to take a road that leads nowhere and will most likely lead to their additional victimisation.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1