Dealing with emotional petitioners accounts for more than 80 per cent of the workload of low-level liaison offices in Beijing, according to liaison officers interviewed by mainland media, as authorities confirmed the news of a pending shutdown of these offices by June. Xinhua yesterday confirmed an earlier media report that liaison offices in the capital that were set up by county-level governments or below would close in the next six months. The report said, quoting 2006 statistics, that there were 927 liaison offices at all levels in Beijing, of which 436 were at the county level. The magazine Outlook Weekly had reported on Sunday that thousands of county-level liaison offices in the capital would be closed in the next six months; Beijing sees them as a hotbed for corruption. Zhao Lin, a pseudonym for one liaison office representative given by The Beijing News, disputed what he called a generalised accusation. Zhao told the newspaper that for eight years the office had run on an annual budget of 50,000 yuan (HK$57,000), and its main functions included taking care of county officials visiting the capital, attracting government funds and personal investments for the county and, above all, maintaining stability - a euphemism for stopping 'illegal' petitioners from complaining to central government departments about the misdeeds of local government. He said the last task had become increasingly important, reflected by the rise of the office's budget to 200,000 yuan in 2008, with two additional employees assigned to 'maintaining stability'. 'For this function alone, liaison offices must not be closed down,' Zhao said, especially when Beijing police often require liaison offices to remove county petitioners released from police detention. Zhao said officers would bring the petitioners to a hotel or a cafe close to the office, and persuade them to go home. 'For 365 days, we have to go and stop petitioners,' said Zhao, adding that about 90 per cent of all petitioners in Beijing were handled by county liaison offices. Since most of these petitioners are emotional, normally two officers are needed to handle one petitioner. 'We should not be talking about closing down liaison offices, but rather strengthening them,' Zhao urged. 'If you close down these county offices, how will you handle the enormous task [of stopping petitioners] with just one city-level liaison office?' A county liaison official told the Nanfang Daily that his office handled about 80 petitioners a year in 2003; now it was about 200 a year. It is common knowledge that 'stopping' petitioners involves widespread abuse, but Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Professor Yu Jianrong, who specialises in the petitioning system, said removing the county-level offices would not change the petitioners' plight. 'Authorities will find another way to stop the petitioners. They might increasingly do so through so-called commercial [security] companies,' said Yu, an outspoken advocate of shifting people's reliance on the petitioning system to the courts.