In traditional China, aggrieved people from around the country could seek justice by travelling to the capital and lodging a petition. In today's China, the system continues, with the State Bureau for Letters and Calls being responsible for dealing with petitioners.
Unfortunately, much of the publicity in recent years has been about how local government officials kidnap petitioners to prevent them from lodging complaints while Beijing officials pretend not to know that this goes on.
Officials who do not want the petitions to reflect badly on their work will even break the law to ensure that people with grievances don't get to Beijing.
Two weeks ago, the Chinese government expanded its petitioning network to include Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory but which the People's Republic of China has never administered in the 65 years of its existence.
Xinhua announced that on August 15, the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office "officially opened a special office to manage public petitions related to Taiwan affairs". The office's director, Zhang Zhijun, visited Taiwan for the first time in June and the occasion was hailed as marking the beginning of a new era in which mainland and Taiwanese officials will deal with each other as equals.
To ensure equality, perhaps Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council should consider setting up an office to handle petitions from the 1.3 billion mainlanders. But, then again, perhaps not.
Since something like a million Taiwanese are living on the mainland, it may well be that some have grievances against mainland officials that they wish to petition Beijing about. Indeed, Xinhua quoted a mainland official as saying that the office can try to help Taiwanese spouses on the mainland and "try to solve their problems", suggesting that family reunification was an issue the new office could work on.
If the office's jurisdiction is limited to complaints about how Taiwanese are treated on the mainland, well and good. But Xinhua explains that such offices generally handle petitions involving "injustice in land acquisition, social security, education, health care or environmental protection".
If Taiwanese petition the office about such problems on their island, will they obtain relief? Will the State Council issue directives to President Ma Ying-jeou? If so, they are unlikely to be productive.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Beijing has not extended the petition system to Hong Kong, which, unlike Taiwan, is already under Chinese sovereignty. As the recent white paper has already made clear, the central leadership "directly exercises jurisdiction" over Hong Kong and can issue directives to the chief executive. That being the case, many Hong Kong people would probably be interested in making formal petitions.
Given Hong Kong's penchant for protest marches, signature campaigns and informal referendums, any petition office for Hong Kong is likely to have its hands full.