Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Translation: "Following Mistaken Beating of Official's Wife, Let's Look at Reform of Petitioning System"

Over the past several days, the Chinese Internet has been buzzing with news of a middle-aged woman who was beaten by police officers in Wuhan outside of a government building, where she had gone to discuss a grievance with officials. Police violence is unfortunately not a rare occurrence in China, but what has garnered so much attention was that the victim, Chen Yulian, is the wife of an official on the provincial “politics and law commission”—an institution of the Chinese Communist Party charged with overseeing all aspects of law enforcement. As if all this weren’t ironic enough, the woman’s husband is responsible for “maintaining stability”—a goal in the name of which acts of violence and violations of individual rights are routinely carried out, including against petitioners seeking redress for personal grievances.

The Chinese press has reported that police officials were ultimately forced to apologize for this incident of “mistaken identity,” but the apology only brought further outrage over the double standard that has been exposed. As the author of a July 21 opinion piece in the Beijing Times put it: “Those doing the beating may have mistaken Chen Yulian’s identity as the wife of [an official], but they could not have mistaken her identity as a citizen.” (In response to the incident and ensuing fallout, the public security bureau has taken some punitive action. It has been reported that, of the six officers involved, three have received “demerits” on their records, and of these, one was transferred off the force.)

Zhou Hucheng, who writes columns on current affairs for the Guangzhou newspaper Southern Daily, assesses this scandal from a different perspective (Dui Hua’s translation is below). In fact, he argues, ultimate responsibility for violence like this rests with China’s broken petitioning system. Under pressure to promote an image of the “harmonious society,” local officials frequently adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward petitioners and use all means of coercion and, often, violence to prevent complaints from reaching higher levels. Huge amounts of money are being devoted to “maintaining stability,” funds that, Zhou implies, could be better spent—perhaps on measures to resolve grievances rather than simply covering them up.


Following Mistaken Beating of Official’s Wife, Let’s Look at Reform of Petitioning System

Zhou Hucheng
Southern Daily, July 21, 2010

     Six plainclothes police officers from the Wuchang Branch Public Security Bureau in Wuhan, assigned by the public security authority to serve a special “petitioning assignment” at the provincial Party headquarters, violently beat the wife of a deputy department-level official on the Hubei Party Committee’s Politics and Law Commission. Headlines everywhere say the beating was a “mistake,” but strictly speaking it was no mistake. If the beating victim, Ms Chen Yulian, were not the wife of an official, the beating would not be called a “mistake.” Why not?
     First, let’s look at what public security officials told family members: “It was a mistake—a simple mistake. They didn’t recognize you and didn’t know that you were the wife of such a high official.” A person at the scene asked them in retort: “You say the beating was a mistake and it’s not allowed to beat the wife of an official. Does that mean ordinary people can be beaten?” Looking at all of the rules governing [police] work that have been made public, the law does not authorize police to beat petitioners at will. Moreover, if it is legal for those possessing public authority to beat ordinary people as they wish, this would theoretically shake the foundation of our governance. However, in real life, instances of petitioners being beaten, locked up in psychiatric facilities, or even sent to re-education through labor are too numerous to count. Again, why is this?
     It is primarily because of the pressure felt by local governments over petitioning quotas. Petitioning is linked to official performance, so that if there are many petitioners it is seen as meaning local society is unstable and officials bear responsibility for ineffective governance. If, on the other hand, there are few petitioners, it will be seen as effective construction of a harmonious society. When maintaining stability becomes such an extremely important—even the most important—job, one in which the quality of the work of [dealing with] petitions is closely linked to official performance, some places have even established a one-strike policy for petitioning, where even a single case of petitioning to higher authorities will result in officials from the petitioner’s locality being penalized with a warning or removal from office. Under such circumstances, the petitioning system has become a sharp sword hanging over the heads of local government officials, for whom the slightest mishandling [of a dispute] could have an impact on their personal futures and fates. So, for them, no method is too extreme in dealing with petitioners. They intercept petitioners at key petitioning offices, organize study sessions, ally [with other localities] to intercept petitioners, or even send [petitioners] to re-education through labor. In short, there are numerous ways [of dealing with petitioners], including using the instruments of dictatorship to commit violence. It may seem that the beating of the wife of an official from the politics and law commission was mistaken, but if we consider that “a prince who petitions is as guilty as a commoner,” then actually those police officers should feel wronged: “Why is it okay to beat ordinary petitioners but not okay to beat a petitioner who is the wife of an official?”
     This in fact has exposed an unspeakable secret about the petitioning system. Ever since it was established, the system has, on the one hand, substantially expanded the authority of petitioning offices, which appears on the surface to give petitioners everywhere more opportunities to express their opinions. On the other hand, by making petitioning an indicator of official performance and closely linking petitioning with maintenance of stability—where areas with few petitioners are rewarded—this leads [officials] everywhere to pursue and intercept petitioners and use all possible means to control them. It’s been said that there are two armies stationed at the gate of the National Office for Letters and Visits: one made up of petitioners and another made up of personnel sent to the capital by each locale to intercept petitioners. Each contingent for intercepting petitioners helps each other out, and when they see people who look like petitioners they grab them first without asking any questions and send them off to the local representative office in Beijing to have them sent back home. Responding to local petitioners who come to Beijing is a major task for local representative offices in Beijing. Why do so many localities dare not eliminate their Beijing representative offices? Other than [fearing the loss of] “funding inflows resulting from lobbying,” a key reason is that they must remain in Beijing to respond to local petitioners who could appear in Beijing at any moment. By the way, according to a Tsinghua University report, China’s expenditures in 2009 for maintaining stability exceeded 500 billion [yuan].
     The mistaken beating of an official’s wife and the above analysis makes clear that the petitioning system is in need of wide-ranging reform. Failure to reform will bring both material and physical harm to the public. Failure to reform will also exhaust local officials’ ability to respond and lead to estranged relations between cadres and the public, antagonism between officials and the people, and great financial waste. Is it worth it? For this reason, a timetable for reform of the petitioning system must be announced as soon as possible, because the longer we postpone, the more damage will be done to long-term, fundamental stability.