Intercepting petitioners who travel to Beijing to relay their grievances to the central government has become a lucrative business in the capital in the past few years, according to a long-time observer of the system.
'In the capital, there are many interception companies who specialise in helping local government liaison offices in Beijing stop petitioners,' Yu Jianrong , a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in a lecture in Hong Kong yesterday.
'They have so many tactics to stop petitioners. For example, they would pretend to be a fellow villager who is going to petition.
'If you tell them you came from Hunan, they would immediately inform the Hunan provincial government's liaison office to send you back home.'
Some senior petitioners have tried to keep silent to avoid being trapped, but Yu said the interception companies' staff would try to initiate physical confrontations with them to make them say something.
'They can identify your township from your accent,' Yu said. 'According to a county-level politics and law committee from one province, they paid 8,000 yuan (HK$9,088) to such companies to help find an important petitioner.'
Many petitioners who manage to reach the Complaint Letter and Request Handling Office and receive a receipt in black and white from senior officials still complain that their complaints go unheeded.
'It's because their complaint records were deleted by some related officials in the Public Security Ministry or other departments in Beijing after receiving bribes from local governments,' Yu said, citing an internal document issued by a county government in Luoyang , Henan . 'The document ordered local officials to pull out all the stops to delete petitioners' complaint files in Beijing, including bribes and other measures.'
Yu, a former visiting scholar at Harvard who has studied rural petitioners since 1996, said the petitioning system, set up in the early 1950s by Mao Zedong as a way to check and balance the powers of local officials, had been abused and had caused direct economic damage to all local governments.
'Both local government and the petitioners have suffered under such a system,' he said. 'Petitioners who are sent back to their home towns are detained immediately and sent to labour camps for re-education.'
Yu said many petitioners told him that 'it's now very common for local governments to send petitioners to mental hospitals'.
'All local governments on the mainland have pulled out all the stops to prevent petitioners travelling to Beijing, which creates a heavy burden on local finances,' he said.
'Actually, only very few petitioners succeed in reaching Beijing, while others are intercepted by officials at local airports, railway stations or bus terminals on their way to the capital.'
He said the petitioning system had created a 'cat-and-mouse game' between the central government, local officials and petitioners.
'No matter how many outstanding achievements a local official has accomplished, their fate could be ruined by just one veto if someone petitions to the central government,' Yu said.
'Such a system also shows that none of the petitioners trusts our judicial system, as they are just hoping for an instruction given by senior officials in Beijing.'