China's most recent white paper on human rights, issued in September, claimed continued progress, as did earlier ones. For example, it said that 'in 2009, the number of letters from, and visits of, the people for petition dropped by 2.7 per cent over the previous year, a decrease for the fifth consecutive year'.
It added: 'Leading officials of all levels of the [Communist] Party and government are required to read and reply to letters from the masses, open their offices to complaints from visitors on a regular basis, take responsibility for the cases they handle and be held responsible for any dereliction of duty.'
This sounds good in theory but, in practice, the system doesn't work. Local officials go to great lengths to keep residents from petitioning and central government officials encourage their local counterparts not to allow petitioners to travel to Beijing.
Last week, The New York Times published a devastating article on how potential petitioners - including anyone with a grievance who may want to lodge a petition - are thrown into psychiatric hospitals regardless of the state of their mental health.
One example cited was Xu Lindong, a poor farmer in Henan province who was locked up in Zhumadian Psychiatric Hospital after he filed complaints against the local government over a land dispute. The government committed him to a mental hospital and kept him there and at a second mental institution for 6 1/2 years.
The savage treatment to which petitioners are subject was publicised in July, after the wife of a Hubei provincial official was beaten so badly by plain-clothes policemen that she was admitted to hospital. She had been mistaken for a petitioner.
Subsequently, the head of the local public security bureau apologised, saying: 'It was a mistake. We were not aware that we had beaten the wife of an important official.'
The unspoken implication was that the police can freely beat up ordinary citizens who wish to lodge a complaint.
One journalist writing in Southern Daily, Zhou Hucheng, used the incident to examine the petitioning system. He concluded that the system itself was in need of wide-ranging reform. 'The law does not authorise police to beat petitioners at will,' he wrote. 'However, in real life, instances of petitioners being beaten, locked up in psychiatric facilities or even sent to re-education through labour are too numerous to count.'
But Zhou blames not the police but the system. 'Petitioning is linked to official performance,' he said, 'so if there are many petitioners, it is seen as meaning local society is unstable and officials bear responsibility for ineffective governance. If, on the other hand, there are few petitioners, it will be seen as effective construction of a harmonious society.' Under such circumstances, he concluded, 'the petitioning system has become a sharp sword hanging over the heads of local government officials, for whom the slightest mishandling [of a dispute] could have an impact on their personal futures and fates. So, for them, no method is too extreme in dealing with petitioners.'
What China needs is not a system that sounds good but one that actually works. The petition tradition is rooted in dynastic times, when officials at various levels up to the emperor were seen as avenues through which ordinary citizens could obtain justice. In a modern, lawful society, citizens should not need to petition; they should simply go to court for an impartial judgment.
The problem is that the court system is far from perfect, and when people are denied justice in the courtroom, they seek to bypass the judicial system by petitioning.
The solution is to create a judicial system where judges have the legal expertise to deal with issues properly and are paid enough so they do not become corrupt. There must be no doubt about the integrity of judges, and the Communist Party must not seek to influence the outcome of sensitive court cases. Until that day arrives, petitions and the abuses with which they are associated will no doubt continue.