In imperial times, many Chinese on the receiving end of injustices in the provinces would travel to the seat of the emperor in the hope of redress from a benevolent ruler. The political system may have changed but the practice is more popular than ever. There is a sophisticated and long-standing bureaucratic mechanism for processing such petitions: the benign-sounding State Bureau for Letters and Calls. At last count, it was stamping 20,000 a day, but that may be about to change.
On April 23, the bureau officially announced it would ban people from filing complaints on most local government issues. In other words, bypassing the local authorities to seek redress with the central government will no longer be permitted. A bureau spokesman said the change was designed to "regulate the procedure and improve the efficiency of handling petitions". It is one of several recent announcements seeking to address the creaking petitioning system.
The vast majority of complaints relate to localised cases of land expropriation, demolition of homes and labour disputes. Since the vast majority of petitioners suffer grievances at the hands of local government officials, the chances of securing justice from local courts staffed by friends and colleagues of the well-networked accused are slim.
Petitioners cling to the romantic notion of a wise and kind-hearted mandarin in Beijing who, upon hearing of the injustice, will intervene on the victim's behalf. Chinese folklore and legend is replete with such stories, and the contemporary Communist Party is skilled at cultivating the myth of the altruistic central ruler let down by venal local officials.
In reality, the likelihood of a supplicant from the countryside benefiting from a successful intervention has never been high. Millions of petitions are submitted every year, and the vast majority are thrown out or directed straight back to the offending local authority. Other cases are lost in a tortuous netherworld of bureaucratic delay and obfuscation, exacting a grievous secondary punishment on victims and their families fighting for compensation, pardons or justice.
The closest Beijing ever had to a shanty town was the so-called Petitioners' Village, an ad hoc domicile for petitioners in various stages of desperation, some of whom had travelled the length of the country to put forward their case. This area no longer exists - it was knocked down before the 2008 Olympics - but the petitioners have merely dispersed, not disappeared.
Many would-be petitioners never make it to Beijing. Some are intercepted by acolytes of offending local officials and beaten by hired hands. Others are imprisoned, illegally, in unofficial "black jails" for weeks at a time, and their families harassed.
Although the probability of censure is low, local officials do not like their misadventures being brought to the attention of their superiors, not least because until recently the petitioner-count fed into their performance assessments. From time to time, the central government also wishes the petitioners would just disappear, or at least not besmirch the city when big events like party congresses take place.
As an appeal of last resort, the petition system has come under increasing pressure, as corruption and inefficiencies grow within and the number of petitioners continues to rise. The bureau's deputy director Xu Yean committed suicide at the beginning of April. His predecessor, Xu Jie, lost his job and was investigated for corruption late last year.
The central government has called for an end to abusive practices in the petitioning system, and to improve communication to prevent low-level conflicts from escalating. Late last year, a government report said that petitioner numbers would no longer be linked with local officials' performance assessments. Whether this will happen remains to be seen, and we await results from a pilot study conducted in wealthy Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
On February 25, the Central Committee and the State Council introduced guidelines that emphasised the rule of law in handling petition cases. There was a call to expand the number of channels for petitioners to use - a website was launched last year for this purpose. This was followed on March 19 by new rules banning the confinement of petitioners.
These are promising signs, backed by high-sounding rhetoric in state media about the importance of strengthening the rule of law and the role of trust in increasing efficiencies in the system. Yet we are a long way from seeing these goals furthered in practice. As yet, there is no substantive policy document to underpin government pledges.
More fundamentally, the fair and efficient resolution of conflicts will continue to be hindered by the lack of independent courts. And although it is in the interests of both central and local governments to resolve complaints before they escalate into larger protests or "mass incidents", they have conflicting priorities.
For the central leadership, maintaining stability is closely linked to the legitimacy of the communist regime, while local governments care about stability when it affects economic performance. Development reigns supreme in the provinces, even when it comes at the cost of individual well-being, causes individual grievances and collective instability. The incentive for inaction is huge. Grabbing land at low cost to make way for construction projects is simultaneously the main source of revenue for local governments and the major cause of petitions.
From the petitioners' point of view, the prospects for justice seem as far away as ever. Cynics may even suspect that improving efficiency and fair outcomes are not the motivating factors behind the proposed changes to the system. Instead, they speculate that they are another manifestation of the political tightening implemented under President Xi Jinping's leadership. Tougher regulation of the petition system may be a means to manage dissent, a real-world control to accompany the crackdown on critical voices in Chinese cyberspace.
Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. Samantha Hoffman is a PhD student at the institute