Beijing bans petitioners seeking redress from appealing directly to higher authorities

In move likely to stir discontent, ancient system of appealing to Beijing over local grievances and graft is curtailed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 1:50pm

Desperate to avoid protests in the capital, the central government has banned citizens from bypassing local authorities to file petitions in Beijing.

The new regulation, issued by the State Bureau for Letters and Calls on Wednesday, will be enforced from May 1, in the latest effort to streamline the chaotic petitioning system.

Making the trek to the capital is seen as the only way for villagers and provincial residents to air grievances and seek justice from higher authorities over wrongdoing at home. Local officials and sometimes hired thugs are known to track down and stop petitioners en route to Beijing, as they may expose local problems.

The purpose of this regulation is to clarify the jurisdiction, regulate the procedure and improve the efficiency of handling petitions
Zhang Enxi, spokesman

A high number of petitions are seen as a black mark against a local government’s ability to maintain peace and order. In practice, few of the cases are ever resolved.

“Petitioners should file their complaints only at their administrative local level and the local authorities have the obligation to handle the petitions properly,” Zhang Enxi, deputy head and spokesman of the bureau, was quoted by Xinhua as saying. 

“Central government departments will not take complaints about issues that should be handled by provincial governments or that are being processed by them.

“The purpose of this regulation is to clarify the jurisdiction, regulate the procedure and improve the efficiency of handling petitions,” Zhang said. “It is expected to help citizens file petitions in a stepwise manner.”

The State Bureau of Letters and Calls, responsible for handling petitions, stipulated in a new regulation that the central government will not accept complaints about issues that should be handled at provincial level, the People’s Daily said.

Higher levels of government departments will not accept petitions that bypassed the local government and its immediate superior, and petitions will be rejected if they are within the jurisdiction of the legislative and judicial branches, according the new regulations.

However, there are a few exceptions. Corruption complaints against province- and state-level officials; petitions about issues of provincial or national importance; and complaints not properly handled by lower governments will be entertained. 

The new regulation encourages people to file their complaints by post, e-mail or through government websites instead of visiting the concerned departments.

It also emphasises protocol for petition offices to handle the cases and record the complaints in a national database. All petitions should be handled within 90 days, said the document.

Those that do not handle petitions properly and prompt citizens to turn to higher-level authorities will receive warnings and punishments “if causing serious outcomes”, the document said without elaborating.

The petitions system, which dates back to imperial times, and petitioners have long been a headache for security authorities.

Many local governments have dispatched local police to detain constituents who are petitioning in Beijing – a practice that central departments, mindful of keeping social order, have not actively tried to stop.

Many petitioners were reportedly beaten and illegally detained by local authorities. This has driven some petitioners to extreme measures.

Last July, a disabled man, Ji Zhongxing, set off a homemade explosive at the Beijing airport to protest alleged police brutality which he said landed him in a wheelchair. Ji lost his left hand in the blast, but no-one else was injured.

Ji said he had “lost all hope in society”. On October 15, he was sentenced to six years in jail.

Petitioning has deep roots in China, where courts are influenced by the ruling Communist Party and local governments, and often seen as beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Petitioners often try to take local disputes ranging from corruption to land grabs to higher levels.

Despite international criticism, petitioners are often forced home or held in “black jails”, unlawful secret detention facilities where detainees can be subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation and psychological abuse.

China has made a series of efforts to reform the system by cracking down on illegal imprisonment of petitioners and pushing for the process to go online. The government does not formally acknowledge that black prisons exist.

With additional reporting from Reuters