China’s ancient petition system goes online

By Rahul Jacob and Zhou Ping in Guangzhou

The scene may have resembled a cartoon or an online virtual world, but it was actually a 21st century makeover of one of China’s oldest traditions – the petitioning system.

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Four cities in the southern province of Guangdong this week created experimental online forums for citizens to raise complaints. The virtual petition offices – staffed by officials represented by cartoon figures – for the first time allowed citizens to watch officials handle cases. The experiment was so popular that almost 25,000 people logged on to watch the first three webcasts.

In one cyber encounter, Xu Shaohua, a provincial official, “met” a female petitioner in the industrial city of Dongguan who complained that the highway from Shenzhen to Guangzhou that runs past her house lacked sound barriers.

Peng Peng, a member of the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences said the innovation was “more direct and visual” than sending petition letters. He said that while it would “help build people’s trust”, the effort was partly directed at reducing dissatisfaction with local governments and complaints to higher authorities.

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Every Chinese provincial capital has a petition office. Between them they receive several million complaints annually. When people feel they have not been fairly treated, they take their petition to the central government in Beijing. which they hope will be more benevolent.

Zhou Zhanshun, the governor of the national petition office, has said that 80 per cent of the problems petitioners raise are reasonable and that the vast majority should have been resolved at the local level.

However, plain clothed security officials from the home provinces frequently detain petitioners so that the province’s record is not blemished. Last week, a tourist from Henan province Beijing was illegally detained and beaten unconscious by these officials who are known as “interceptors”.

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Guangdong’s moves to alter the petition system are being viewed as a novel attempt to improve communication between an authoritarian government and its increasingly restive citizens, but also as a ploy to reduce the number of complaints channelled to the central government.

In addition to the webcasts, some local authorities are experimenting with “town hall” style meetings. At three such gatherings in the city of Guangzhou in August, senior officials met with thousands of petitioners in large halls and the practice is expected to resume later this year. “It is very unusual to have three petition meetings in a month,” said Mr Peng.

Yuan Gang at Peking University says Wang Yang, Guangdong’s party secretary, has used the fact that the word for “petition” in Chinese sounds like the phrase “giving people a place to talk” in an attempt to make the system more responsive.

Despite Mr Wang’s hopes, when several vice-mayors in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, met thousands of petitioners, the meetings were fraught with dashed hopes and even despair. One young man almost burst into tears as he complained that the documents that he wanted to place before officials had been seized by security officials before he even entered the hall.

At the same meeting, Sun Hong and his wife had queued from 2am to get into the large gymnasium where one of the August petition meetings was held. The elderly man said he was pursuing a case of illegal detention in 2008 when he was bundled into a car and held for six days after he lost a business fraud case in which, he alleges, government officials were involved.

In politically sensitive cases like Mr Sun’s, the new petition mindset is remarkably similar to the old one. Even though he was among the first 40 people to queue, by early afternoon he had still not met an official, while several petitioners behind him had, suggesting that local officials did not want to deal with his complaint. For his wife, the futile wait encapsulated years of disillusionment.

“My parents used to be party cadres who helped build this country,” she said. “I can scarcely believe this is the country they devoted themselves to. How can they treat us like this?”

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