Wen Jiabao

Petition system can never deliver justice

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


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Premier Wen Jiabao's unprecedented visit to petitioners filing grievances against the government should have been reason for applause. At one level, it's a welcome step that the premier turned his attention to the plight of ordinary people, and one that should encourage citizens to criticise wrongdoing and seek justice. But at another level, it's a shame that the system exists at all.

There's been much media hype about Wen's visit to the top office for complaints, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, and for good reason. Not since communist rule began in 1949 has a leader found such time for those with gripes against authorities. The premier's image as a man of the people has been furthered by the wide coverage, although there's scant evidence so far that petitioners will have a louder voice or be better treated. Despite Wen's promises of help for the eight people he met, just one of the cases, involving a petitioner from Tianjin representing migrant workers owed back-pay by the government, has been resolved.

Questions have therefore naturally been raised as to whether Wen's visit was stage-managed or more style than substance. Barely a day goes by without him appearing in television and newspaper pictures among ordinary people, comforting after a tragedy or sharing a meal with the poor. His push for officials to listen to petitioners and properly handle and address their complaints is at odds with a system where those with grievances are usually ignored, with the petitioners forced home, punished or intimidated. As with his equally unexpected call in Shenzhen last year for political reform, there are questions whether, in this mission, Wen has the full backing of the Communist Party.

With so much corruption in the government and collusion between officials and companies, any such effort has to have the party's weight behind it. Most complaints are about forced evictions and land seizures, matters that more often than not involve authorities. Discipline inspection agencies received almost 1.43 million petitions and tip-offs last year, recovering 8.97 billion yuan (HK$10.5 billion) in economic losses for the state.

That's where the inherent contradictions in the petitioning system arise. Even if the premier's interventions had yielded results, the mainland needs the rule of law and judicial independence, not the strengthening of a system that so obviously doesn't work.

Fighting corruption and graft can't be done effectively through the petitioning system. Nor will it lessen growing anger and protests, a constant concern among leaders worried about stability and the party's grip. Petitions have a long cultural and historical tradition dating to the dawn of imperial China, when the best means of redress was an audience with the emperor or his aides. Now formalised in the constitution, it's administered through national and local regulations that have little place in 21st century China.

Most complaints involve officials who have every incentive to try to silence those with grievances. With no certainty of justice from the police and courts, petitions are seen by many as the only chance of it. Yet the solution should be to build greater confidence in the legal system, not continue to encourage ways around it.

Wen's initiative is welcome and sets the right tone, but isn't the solution. Justice will only come about with the rule of law and a more accountable government. Independent courts, a free media, government transparency and open discussion and debate are essential steps towards that end.