Better processes for grievances welcome
Petitioning has always been a risky business on the mainland, so recent reforms are a step in the right direction. However, they should come with efforts to strengthen the protection of civil liberties and rule of law
Public petitions to Beijing over grievances can risk the interception and detention of petitioners, and can also be unhelpful to the careers of officials who are the subject of complaints. So it seems good news all round that petitions against the government dropped across the mainland by a quarter last year compared with 2013, according to state media. However, that is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the level of discontent over issues such as abuses of administrative power, rural land requisition, social welfare and construction.
The State Bureau for Letters and Calls has not released actual figures, which remain a sensitive topic. A number of administrative measures could be behind the fall, however, including encouraging citizens to settle disputes through the courts or through conciliation at the grass-roots level, and diverting petitions relating to court cases into the judicial system. At the same time, petitioners also frequent the petitions offices of major departments and Communist Party organs and ministries, rather than the bureau directly.
In general though these additional avenues for complaint are a step in the right direction, although a crackdown on rights lawyers who help petitioners does nothing for perceptions. And a decline in discontent can by no means be taken for granted.
Evidence of this is an exhortation to officials at the eighth national conference on petition work in July by President Xi Jinping to make every effort to handle public grievances lawfully and in a timely fashion.He rightly noted that those handling petitions played an important role in safeguarding the country’s stability and called for improved legal institutions for addressing public petitions.
The new mechanisms should be seen as only the first steps in overall reform of the petition system. It is very important to have legal and proper channels for the public to vent grievances and seek justice. This is especially so with the explosion of online petitioning, given that it involves creating an electronic record of personal details and wide public exposure of officials subject to complaints. Improved petition mechanisms should come with efforts to strengthen the protection of civil liberties and rule of law.