The flaws of justice on the mainland have long been driving those with unresolved grievances to desperate measures. Of late, though, the desperation has been pushing people in a disturbing direction. A wheelchair-bound man who set off a bomb at Beijing Capital International Airport earlier this month was not the most audacious effort, but it was certainly attention-grabbing. With the help of social media and concern about security, he has had his case reopened and prompted debate about the much-criticised petition system.
Ji Zhongxing was the only person injured in the blast; he shouted warnings beforehand to prevent others from being hurt. For that he has gained sympathy on microblogging websites. He had been fighting for eight years for compensation for paralysis suffered from allegedly being beaten by guards in the Guangdong city of Dongguan after an incident involving his motorcycle taxi. To no avail, he had repeatedly petitioned authorities and blogged about his case.
The high-profile manner of his protest has prompted officials to order that his charges be investigated. They are right to reopen the case, but if the government does not make a concerted effort to also give a proper hearing to all petitioners, they risk encouraging copycats. Innocent lives could be endangered by extremist behaviour, as last month when a jobless Xiamen street vendor who had failed to get a pension set fire to a commuter bus, killing himself and 46 others. But reforming a system that has become so broken due to corruption and mismanagement will be challenging.
Repeated efforts at reform have failed, proving how deep-seated official wrongdoing has become. Petition offices, seen as a last resort, do not have real power to solve cases. Officials with such authority are often the root cause of complaints. Those with grievances often end up taking concerns to Beijing, where they are ignored, harassed or forced home.
The nation's new leaders have called for fairness from the judicial system. There is progress, but it is gradual and slow. Hastening reform and improving the effectiveness of other channels of complaint, arbitration and non-governmental groups among them, would relieve the burden on petition offices. There is a massive backlog of cases and millions more each year, causing further strain. No matter how difficult and involved such work would be, though, it is essential that an effective safety valve is in place to address citizens' concerns.