Thursday, June 27, 2013

Corruption, Shuanggui and Rule of Law

The psychological examination room of a shuanggui facility.

In the course of China’s recent transition of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, there has been much talk about the need to curb corruption and restore popular trust in the government. “Power should be reined by the cage of regulations,” Xi announced in a speech earlier this year, adding that “party cadres at various levels should keep in mind that no one can enjoy absolute power outside of the law.” Although the fall of several high-profile officials has illustrated the new administration’s anti-corruption resolve, the arrest of citizens who call on authorities to make good on their pledges about transparency and rule of law has sent troublingly mixed signals.

Both the anti-corruption effort and the notion of enhancing rule-based governance converge in a recent article (translated below) in the Guangzhou magazine South Reviews by legal journalist Ye Zhusheng. Ye looks at the practice of shuanggui—a form of investigative custody used against Communist Party members accused of serious disciplinary violations such as corruption or dereliction of duty—and how the recent passage of regulations within the party might be a sign of efforts to bring this controversial corruption-fighting measure under rule of law.

Of course, one way to “integrate” shuanggui with Chinese law is to adapt the law so that it better accommodates some of shuanggui’s features. Many argued that the 2012 Criminal Procedure Law’s provisions concerning “residential surveillance”—permitting detention of suspects in state-security, terrorism, or corruption cases in “designated locations” for up to six months—were a way of enabling the law to encompass investigative practices that have heretofore existed outside of the law. This would facilitate an eventual convergence in which extralegal measures would no longer be necessary, but it also entails expanding the scope of shuanggui practices to new targets under the aegis of law.

This particular understanding of rule of law, one that treats “law” as the main criterion of what is right and just, fails to address what, if any, higher-order principles guide the formation of rules in a society. As the commentators in the article below suggest, the preservation of shuanggui and the practices associated with it ultimately appears to be premised on consequentialist, utilitarian arguments—shuanggui is the most powerful means of extracting information about corruption. Is the merging of extralegal measures like shuanggui and legal measures like residential surveillance aimed at protecting the rights of officials accused of wrongdoing—people for whom the public has very little sympathy—or is it, rather, aimed at producing a more rational and efficient system of investigation that can eliminate some of the more egregious errors of the current system? The answer to that question is key to understanding what shuanggui’s future portends for rule of law development in China.

Shuanggui: Between Discipline and the Law

Ye Zhusheng, South Reviews
June 10, 2013

On May 27, the Communist Party of China (CPC) Regulations for Drafting Internal Party Regulations and CPC Provisions for Placing Internal Party Regulations and Normative Documents on File were promulgated, forming the first formal, open “legislation laws” inside the party. The institutional provisions associated with shuanggui are mainly expressed in the form of internal party regulations, so the appearance of these two sets of regulations may be an overture to bringing shuanggui under rule of law.

The Complex Face of Shuanggui

Many years from now, for [those] looking back at China’s anti-corruption history, shuanggui will definitely be a keyword. There are mainly two occasions when this word comes into public view. The first is when relevant authorities announce that some official is “suspected of a serious breach of discipline and undergoing investigation by the [party] organization.” This usually means the end of an official’s political career and the beginning of imprisonment. This situation is often greeted by the public with “great cries of rejoicing.” The second is whenever an official under shuanggui dies for whatever reason and the official’s relatives, scholars, and lawyers raise all sorts of questions, but the public’s attitude ranges somewhere between “he got what he deserved” to “complete disregard.”

Recently, shuanggui has again entered the public view in these two diametrically opposite ways, first through the Liu Tienan case and then through the Yu Qiyi case. Late last year, journalist Luo Changping made corruption accusations on Weibo naming Liu Tienan, the former deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission and director of the National Energy Administration. After waiting for nearly half a year and after all sorts of public conjecture, news of shuanggui was formally announced. Soon thereafter, the public “cheered” the fact that the “tiger-killing” anti-corruption momentum had not slackened, and the media began taking a careful inventory of the “course” of Luo Changping’s legendary [act of] naming names on Weibo.

In April of this year, Yu Qiyi, chief engineer at Wenzhou Industry Investment Group Ltd, died suddenly while under shuanggui. One explanation was that he died because he “fell while showering.” Another was that he “drowned.” Relatives discovered “widespread injuries” all over his body. Afterwards, the local party committee formed a special task force to investigate the incident further.

The institutional definition of shuanggui [or dual stipulateds] comes from the Administrative Supervision Regulations, issued by the State Council in 1990, which state that inspection authorities investigating a case have the power to “order relevant individuals to provide explanations and justifications on matters related to the matter under investigation at a stipulated time and stipulated place.” In formal documents, shuanggui is also known as lianggui [or two stipulateds]. In 1997, the Administrative Supervision Law was passed, changing the “stipulated” of the original regulations to “appointed,” leading to the phrase liangzhi [or two appointeds]. In 1993, the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the Ministry of Supervision came to operate under one roof, so that in practice it is generally difficult to distinguish between shuanggui and liangzhi.

In a series of major anti-corruption cases, shuanggui has been clearly effective: The cases of Chen Xitong, Hu Changqing, Cheng Kejie, and Chen Liangyu were all easily resolved using the “anti-corruption weapon” of shuanggui.

According to Li Yongzhong, an expert on the anti-corruption efforts of the CCDI, shuanggui is necessary in the current battle against corruption. It is a “unique” anti-corruption tactic created to accommodate China’s serious corruption problem: “There are no methods more powerful than lianggui.” Li Yongzhong once spent eight years heading a local discipline inspection office and used shuanggui in about 10 to 20 percent of cases, all of which were “solved.”

On the one hand, it’s an “anti-corruption weapon.” On the other hand, it’s a “deadly black hole.” Since the 1990s, shuanggui began showing its complex face to the public from behind its mysterious veil.

Forging of an “Anti-Corruption Weapon”

So, how does shuanggui—distinct from the legal process—achieve such legendary success in the anti-corruption effort? First of all, this is related to the secret case-handling locations used under shuanggui.

In 1998, the CCDI and Ministry of Supervision issued the Notice on Several Questions Regarding the Use of Liangzhi and Shuanggui Measures by Discipline Inspection and Supervision Organs, which stipulated that shuanggui facilities could neither be set up in offices of judicial organs, places of detention, or facilities for custody and repatriation [a form of extrajudicial detention abolished in 2003 following the death of Chinese citizen Sun Zhigang] set up by administrative authorities, nor could dedicated liangzhi or shuanggui facilities be built. In 2001, the CCDI again issued a document requiring that shuanggui locations “must be selected so as to ensure safety and should generally be selected from one-story houses or the first floor of multi-story buildings meeting adequate security and prevention criteria.”

Sources say that hotels, guesthouses, military bases, and even ordinary residences may be used as locations for shuanggui. South Reviews (SR) interviewed several criminal attorneys who have represented officials in corruption cases, the majority of whom were held under shuanggui in special rooms in hotels or guesthouses.

Central Party School Professor Lin Zhe has visited a local discipline inspection committee’s shuanggui facility. According to her, the set-up of this shuanggui location resembled a standard hotel room, except that all sharp corners in the room were covered with rubber in order to prevent accidents. People’s Daily Online previously published a set of photographs taken by someone who had visited a “base of operations” set up by the CCDI deep in the mountains, which revealed that the high-security location included an interrogation room, a room for psychological testing, and a room for coordinating investigations.

A second characteristic of shuanggui is that the discipline inspection team has relative independence compared to judicial organs. This is primarily because most team members are temporarily drawn from different units and mostly are not previously familiar with one another. This works to eliminate the interference that can come from things like personal relationships.

According to the CCDI’s Notice on Further Standardizing the Use of Lianggui Measures: “Attendants shall be selected from employees of party and state organs, and, as necessary, state organs can be requested to appoint them. Attendants must receive rigorous training, clearly understand their responsibilities, and be strictly disciplined.” According to previous media reports, “every time a person is placed under shuanggui, at least six to nine people attend to him in three shifts around the clock, and those on the night shift cannot sleep.”

A discipline inspection committee employee who did not want his name revealed told SR that if the regulations were strictly adhered to, the time limit for shuanggui could not exceed the time limit for investigating the case, extraction of confessions through torture would not be allowed, and a degree of openness would be required, such as the provision for “notice after 24 hours.” In that case, the shuanggui methods would not be that different from those used by the procuratorate under legal provisions and thus the results would basically be the same. But why hasn’t shuanggui been discarded? This source’s view is that, first, shuanggui enjoys much greater secrecy than judicial process, so that even when “extraordinary” measures are employed, it’s difficult to discover [them] or pursue responsibility. Even more importantly, “If the procuratorate handles the case, there are certain things for which the degree [to which they are used] is more difficult to control.”

Li Yongzhong summarized for SR the reasons why shuanggui is such a great deterrent. Based on his own experience handling cases and the results of his research, he has concluded that there is one major principle and three major laws of shuanggui. The principle is that corrupt people become associated with each other out of economic interests, but “they have no lasting friends, only lasting interests.” As for the three major laws, the first is the “toilet law”: once an official leaves his position of power, it’s like standing up after using the toilet—the stench immediately begins to spread, and the signs of criminality then become apparent. The second is the “law of when the tree falls, the apes scatter”: once an official under shuanggui is isolated from other persons associated with the case, the “apes” start to panic and it’s easy to divide and conquer. The third is the “law of asymmetric information”: after being put under shuanggui, an official loses contact with the outside world and the conspiracy of silence surrounding his corruption begins to fall apart on its own.

The deterrent effect of shuanggui is enough to make officials blanch as soon as they hear the word. This has even been used to extort officials. In March 2009, the head of a government bureau in a district of Chongqing was taken for “questioning” in a hotel room by three unemployed vagrants who disguised themselves as “discipline inspection personnel” carrying out shuanggui. During this “fake shuanggui” period, the official gave a full account of his crimes and even handed over the bank card he was carrying and gave up his password. Similarly, in May 2010, the head of a government bureau in Quanjiao County, Anhui, was also taken away for investigation by people masquerading as “discipline inspection personnel” before being successfully rescued by police more than 40 hours later. According to media reports, that bureau head “displayed obedience” as he was being led away.

These two major tactical advantages of shuanggui, the secrecy of locations and the independence of the investigation team, combined with the ease with which the discipline inspection work team can handle “certain things,” is the basis upon which Li Yongzhong’s three major laws can have their impact. These characteristics enable shuanggui to become an “anti-corruption weapon,” but the problems buried underneath cannot be overlooked.

Integration under Rule of Law

Cheng Wenhao, director of the Anti-Corruption Research Center at Tsinghua University [School of Public Policy and Management], participated in an anti-corruption forum last November chaired by CCDI Secretary Wang Qishan. Cheng believes that as far as the real needs of the battle against corruption are concerned, there is a certain necessity for shuanggui. However, the majority of scholars also believe that shuanggui should be integrated under rule of law and, once the legal system matures, this transitional measure should be abandoned. Although Li Yonghao has praise for the effectiveness of shuanggui, he also believes that institutionally speaking shuanggui is “not without its conflicts with the law” and ought to be used carefully and rarely until the conditions are right for it not to be used at all.

Currently, the institutional nature of shuanggui has gradually become more certain and rule-of-law elements have increased. For example, in the CCDI’s 2001 Notice on Further Standardizing the Use of Lianggui Measures, it states that serious consequences caused by dereliction or abuse of duty or instances of forced or induced confession or corporal punishment during lianggui or any unauthorized use of lianggui shall result in serious pursuit of responsibility for those directly responsible. Moreover, the CCDI’s 2005 “Document 7” makes clear that the rights of a shuanggui target under investigation should be safeguarded, including the right to defend oneself, right of appeal, right of personhood, right to know, and right to property. In practice, however, just as in the Yu Qiyi case, there are still many circumstances in which shuanggui has not yet been integrated under rule of law.

In March 2005, the discipline inspection committee of the Hebei Province State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SOASAC ) placed former party secretary and chairman of the Hebei International Trust and Investment Company Liang Yuncai and others under shuanggui. During the shuanggui period, three investigators selected by the discipline inspection committee from companies under the aegis of the Hebei SOASAC beat Liang Yuncai on multiple occasions, resulting in his death. The interesting thing is that the of the three people selected, one was a police officer for the security section of a state-owned enterprise, while the other two were an officer in the armed services department with no investigative experience or qualifications and a “part-time” driver.

Media reports on the Liang Yuncai case cited the Indictment Opinion Report in the case: “Attendants” beat Liang Yuncai multiple times “for not sitting up straight, failing to follow instructions” and “having a poor attitude and failing to honestly confess.” During [the beatings], “Zuo Shuping (the aforementioned police officer) used a mop handle to beat Liang Yuncai’s back, causing the handle to break, and used a stool to strike Liang’s back and upper torso, causing Liang’s ribs to break in several places and widespread subcutaneous tissue and muscle to bleed in the upper torso, shoulders, and legs, leading to substantial soft tissue damage and bleeding leading to hemorrhagic and traumatic shock.”

After the incident, the three men were respectively handed sentences of life imprisonment, 15 years’ imprisonment, and 10 years’ imprisonment for the crime of intentional injury. Moreover, two other discipline inspection personnel who participated in the investigation were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and three years’ imprisonment, suspended for five years, respectively, for dereliction of duty because they had “clear knowledge that the attendants carried out beatings and yet did nothing to stop them.”

The verdict in the Liang Yuncai case shows that shuanggui is not a law-enforcement procedure, otherwise the crime ought to have been “coercing confession through torture.” Xu Songlin, a professor of criminal law, told SR that the crime of intentional injury applies to ordinary actors and does not require them to be employees of state organs, whereas dereliction of duty applies to employees of state organs and is a crime of negligence with a maximum prison term of seven years. In contrast, when coercion of confession through torture leads to bodily injury or death and heavy punishment is imposed for intentional injury or intentional homicide, the maximum penalty is death, but [the offense of coercing confession through torture] is only applicable to law-enforcement personnel. Even though the Liang Yuncai case involved a police officer, he ultimately was treated as an ordinary actor in the sentencing for the crime of intentional injury.

Just two weeks after the death of Yu Qiyi, news emerged that Jia Jiuxiang, the vice president of the Sanmenxia Intermediate People’s Court in Henan Province, had died while under shuanggui. Officially, his death was attributed to a “heart attack,” but relatives countered that Jia had no heart problems. There have been frequent reports of similar incidents involving death under shuanggui in recent years, most of which are ruled accidental. After many inquiries, SR has discovered extremely few cases like that of Liang Yuncai in which shuanggui investigators were ultimately held accountable.

In 1997, Wang Jinying, a judge at Tianjin’s Baodi County People’s Court, was accused of the crime of self-seeking misconduct and investigated first by the discipline inspection committee and then by the procuratorate. Because of a lack of evidence, Wang was released. After his release, Wang applied for state compensation. In its decision, the Tianjin No.1 Intermediate People’s Court wrote that the discipline inspection committee “is a party organization, not a state organ, and China’s State Compensation Law requires that the body violating rights must be a state organ.” Therefore, the time spent under investigation by the discipline inspection committee could not be included in the calculation of state compensation.

Liu Jianlong, law lecturer at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, points out that even though state compensation cannot be applied in cases of shuanggui, there are provisions in the Administrative Procedure Law for holding state organs accountable for “inaction” and, in principle, one could pursue claims of responsibility against state supervision organs.

In a speech early this year, CCDI Secretary Wang Qishan said: “The current anti-corruption [effort] must primarily treat the symptoms in order to buy more time to treat the causes.” In Li Yongzhong’s view, the use of shuanggui at the tactical level is necessary to treat the symptoms in the “battle to annihilate” corruption, but looking long-term, treating the causes can only rely on a “systematic anti-corruption” [effort] not a “power-based anti-corruption” [effort].

On May 27, CPC Regulations for Drafting of Internal Party Regulations and CPC Provisions for Placing Internal Party Regulations and Normative Documents on File were promulgated, forming the first formal, open “legislation law” inside the party. According to these two sets of regulations, regulations issued by party organs including the discipline inspection organs must go through a process of prior review, during which one of the review standards is [to ask] “is it in accord with the constitution and the law.” The institutional provisions associated with shuanggui are mainly expressed in the form of internal party regulations, so the appearance of these two sets of regulations may be an overture to bringing shuanggui under rule of law.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

RTL Reform Underway, but Undercover

Photo credit: 21st Century Business Herald

China’s leaders have made clear that reform of the current reeducation through labor (RTL) system will be rolled out some time in 2013, but there has been a noticeable lack of detail regarding what sort of institution, if any, might be put forward as a replacement. Yet RTL facilities in at least four provinces (Liaoning, Jiangsu, Jilin, and Hunan) have been quietly taking formal steps to transition into compulsory drug treatment centers, 21st Century Business Herald reports. All of those sent for non-drug-related offenses to one Liaoning RTL facility were released earlier this month—regardless of their time left to serve, according to a petitioner released from the facility and quoted in the Guangzhou newspaper.* Prominent rights lawyer and free speech advocate Pu Zhiqiang told the paper that he has not discovered any new RTL cases this year.

The report says that by May Jiangsu had transitioned all of its RTL facilities into drug treatment centers but that an employee at one Jiangsu facility denied it would stop accepting people sentenced to RTL this year. Underscoring the low-key nature of these transformation efforts, the report notes that officials in Jiangsu warned about the need to prevent media speculation and manage public opinion in order to facilitate the process of reforming RTL.

Writing in Xi’an’s Chinese Business View, commentator Han Fudong expresses exasperation about this low-key approach and wonders why officials would not be more willing to use the reform process—which has widespread public support—to burnish the government’s legitimacy. One reason behind the reticence, he argues, is that officials may worry that the discussion could extend beyond the particular institution of RTL and touch on other, more sensitive subjects—the overriding priority given to stability, for example, or the need for deeper political reform.

In many ways, this fear is itself realized by Han’s essay (translated below), which concludes with a pointed critique of the current political system and its failure to be more democratic and accountable. The “real issue that needs to be faced,” he writes, is the need for a new “institutional design,” one that would inspire officials to take more risks in reform in order to satisfy public desires and expectations.

* [Updated on June 20, 2013] The petitioner, 63-year-old Zhao Zhenjia (赵振甲), has reportedly been held incommunicado since June 9.

Why Cover Up the Abolition of RTL?

Han Fudong, Chinese Business View
June 19, 2013

Following the exposure of several notorious cases, it seems that RTL has reached the point where it’s like a rat scurrying in the street, with everyone shouting to kill it. Its flaws of illegality, the disproportionate [nature of its punishment], and the ways it can be abused in the interests of stability preservation and politics have already been given a full airing by public opinion and highlighted its true nature as an over-reach of power. According to media reports, Liaoning, Jiangsu, Jilin, Hunan, and other provinces have all begun to transition RTL facilities into compulsory drug treatment centers, and Jiangsu has made clear that it completed this reform process at the end of May. In Liaoning’s Chaoyang RTL Center, individuals whose RTL commitments were not yet up have all been released early. Lawyers say that they haven’t seen any RTL cases so far this year.

The abandonment of RTL should be a good thing, something that public opinion supports and that helps the government build legitimacy. But ever since the beginning of this year, when Yunnan took the lead to stop making RTL decisions for acts involving endangering state security, persistent and disruptive petitioning, and damaging leaders’ image, decision-makers seem to have no intention of making public declarations about reform or reveal even once that those in charge have an impulse to reform themselves. It’s been said that behind Yunnan’s abolition of RTL is a “timetable” and “roadmap” on unified arrangements from the Central Politico-Legal Commission, but to date we don’t have a complete picture of these plans. Reform of RTL in Jiangsu and other provinces has also been carried out in a low-key way. In a quarterly meeting on unified political work in Jiangsu RTL (drug rehab) [centers] held in April, it was emphasized that “we must highlight positive guidance, play close attention to online public sentiment concerning the police, guard against malicious speculation by the media, and construct a conducive environment for positive, stable promotion of reform of the RTL system.”

Just like petitioners, media and public opinion have become targets for prevention. For certain public authorities that do not know how to control their power, the laziest method is just to conceal all of their activities. They don’t need outside praise, so they try to avoid any sort of criticism. Since they lack confidence, they fear that the antennas of the media will tap in to other areas external to reform and stimulate a series of unimaginable troubles. The deeper reason is that they have no need to be accountable to public opinion. Those in charge lack effective dialogue with the public, and orders from the center are the only things that fill them with awe.

This is a cause of current crisis in China. Many times, certain agencies rely on a series of figures and formalities to showcase their achievements and show that “everything looks great.” But they don’t make full use of specific reform measures to enhance their own legitimacy.

By restricting citizens of their liberty without a judicial decision, RTL violates the constitution and the Legislation Law. People are sent to RTL because of violations that don’t meet the threshold for criminal punishment (the lightest of which is three months of public supervision) but can instead by locked up for three years of forced labor. This is clearly disproportionate. Many localities rely on this illegal and disproportionate RTL system to crack down on petitioners and dissidents (like the three groups that Yunnan has stopped sending to RTL). It became common long ago to use RTL to solidify the authority and interests of individual officials in the name of maintaining stability. The anger and grievances [directed at RTL] should be cause for an immediate decision to abolish it and take the opportunity to showcase the courage to rectify officials and respect human rights. Why is it necessary to be so secretive?

Besides the reasons stated above, the more fundamental crux of the problem may be that it is difficult to make a complete break with the history of the RTL system. There is an organic continuity between past and present, so the abandonment of RTL would naturally be seen as a kind of accountability for certain activities of RTL facilities at various levels. Perhaps we need to consider a kind of institutional design that would allow those in charge to be both full of confidence and also responsible to public opinion. This is a real issue that needs to be faced.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hefei Petitioning Rankings Continue Despite Central Stoppage

Hefei officials convene a petitioning work meeting in May. Photo credit: Hefei Municipal Letters and Visits Bureau

In theory, China’s petitioning system (formally known as the system of letters and visits) is intended to provide Chinese citizens with an administrative channel to make complaints and allegations of wrongdoing at the local level. It is separate from the judicial process, which involves two parties airing a dispute before a (theoretically) neutral arbiter who makes a decision to support one side’s claim over another. The system relies on another, more traditional model of dispute resolution that assumes government officials faced with a dispute will naturally understand and pursue the proper way to resolve problems and restore social harmony.

Because many controversial social problems involve conflict between local officials and ordinary people—land appropriations, housing demolition, and environmental protection are examples—when disputes arise, the aggrieved parties frequently eschew local channels for dispute resolution in favor of channels at the provincial or central level. One assumption is that local networks of patronage and power make it difficult for ordinary people to challenge local authorities but that higher-ranking officials are less prone to corruption and more interested in taking the side of regular folk.

But as petitioners flock to provincial capitals or Beijing in hopes of getting the attention of the one official who can step in and save the day, they often soon find their problems compounding. This is because local authorities have many incentives to prevent petitioners from “venue skipping” and keep disputes from being aired at higher administrative levels. These incentives stem from the fact that, for many years, “petitioning work” has come to be an important measure of “stability preservation” and plays an important role in determining how local party and government officials’ performance is evaluated.

This assessment system can place heavy demands on local officials, with even a single instance of a petitioner from their jurisdiction registering a complaint in Beijing resulting in serious consequences for future career prospects. This has resulted in an incentive system in which local authorities often place more emphasis on controlling the movement of petitioners—detaining them in “black jails,” “study classes,” reeducation through labor, psychiatric hospitals, etc.—than they do on seeking resolution to underlying disputes.

There have been some recent indications of efforts to change this perverse incentive system, most notably in reports that, starting in March, the State Office of Letters and Visits had stopped issuing lists that ranked provinces by the occurrence of “abnormal” petitioning. To many, this signaled a potential shift away from the linkage between petitioning and official performance evaluations, which it was hoped in turn would help eliminate the abusive practices used to keep problematic petitioners under control.

Though the central authorities’ move to cancel such rankings has reportedly prompted provincial and local authorities to follow suit, there does not appear to have been a coordinated effort that would ensure such rankings are no longer compiled at any level of government. As Yao Wenhui, a columnist for the Kunming Evening News, notes in a recent article, authorities in Anhui’s provincial capital of Hefei appear to have only just implemented a petitioning-based ranking system in an effort to pressure local authorities to resolve problems at the local level.

Yao implies that building confidence in the legal system will ultimately reduce the number of citizens that choose to petition and thus reduce the need for rankings. But, until that time, the residual “infatuation” with petitioning-based performance rankings will be hard to overcome. This is largely because of the overriding emphasis that Chinese authorities place on stability—treating disputes as a sign of systemic failure rather than a natural part of social life to be resolved through rational means. As long as the mentality of “stability above all else” is not fundamentally adjusted, efforts to curb the abuses in the petitioning system are likely to face many further challenges.

Eradicating Local Officials’ Infatuation with Petitioning Rankings

Yao Wenhui, Kunming Evening News
May 23, 2013

Wu Cunrong, member of the Anhui Provincial Party Standing Committee and party secretary of the Hefei Party Committee, recommended that from June 1 each county or district implement a system of monthly rankings based on the numbers of abnormal petitioning incidents and incidents of mass petitioning at the provincial capital. If a given county or district is ranked at the highest two positions, the three main party and government leaders will invite [responsible officials] to “tea” [a euphemism for a disciplinary meeting or questioning]. Wu Cunrong said that issuing rankings of petitioner numbers is meant to urge concerned responsible persons to resolve some matters within their grasp at the grassroots level. (Market Star, May 22)

I recall that more than 10 days ago there were media reports saying that since March the State Office of Letters and Visits had suspended its rankings of provinces (municipalities, autonomous regions) according to their numbers of incidents of “abnormal petitioning.” At the same time, some localities had begun to eliminate petitioning assessments and rankings. This news was well received in the streets, with many people taking it as a kind of positive signal and hoping for a “permanent end to petitioning rankings.”

Who would have imagined that no sooner had we heard this good news then Hefei went “against the tide” and started its own local version of a petitioning-ranking system? That system not only links petitioning rankings with officials’ performance assessments and posts, it also stipulates forceful, detailed rules for implementation. The top two [officials] each month are to be “invited to tea” by the responsible authorities at the city level. Being ranked in the top two for two months in a row will result in a personal meeting with the city party secretary. Being at the “top” of the rankings for three months in a row will lead to “handling through organizational measures, with responsible persons at the county or district level being relieved of duty or assigned to a new position”—in other words, people could lose their official positions.

It seems that the public’s previous hopes for a “permanent end to petitioning rankings” were too optimistic. At least within the administrative system, it seems we are still quite a ways from having consensus about eliminating petitioner rankings, and petitioner rankings in some locales may even become stronger.

Party Secretary Wu Cunrong says: “Issuing rankings of petitioner numbers is meant to urge concerned responsible persons to resolve some matters within their grasp at the grassroots level.” Actually, this was the original intent behind the State Office of Letters and Visits’ practice of issuing petitioning rankings for each province (municipality, autonomous region) for many years. It is said that this system has a legal basis—Article 7 of the revised Regulations on Letters and Visits that took effect on May 1, 2005, states: “People’s Governments at each level shall establish robust petitioning work responsibility systems and, for those persons responsible for dereliction and malfeasance . . . pursue responsibility and circulate notices within a particular area.” I’m not sure why, but this provision intended to force governments and officials at all levels to “resolve problems at the grassroots level” has transformed in ordinary practice into petitioning rankings at every level that are linked to official promotions and transfers.

There have been quite serious consequences in the way that the Regulations on Letters and Visits have been thus “understood” and “implemented” in practice. [The concept of] “the fewer [the number of] abnormal petitioning [incidents] the better” means that within the administrative system, superiors evaluate inferiors’ petitioning work not on the basis of how many petitioning problems they resolve but how many petitioners they “resolve.” “Resolve problems at the grassroots level” has thus turned into “hide problems at the grassroots level.” And once petitioning rankings are linked to performance assessments and official positions, it’s not hard to guess what choice local officials will make: to use all means at their disposal to surround, pursue, block, and intercept petitioners. For the past several years, petitioners have been beaten, returned home, sent to “study classes,” imprisoned in reeducation through labor facilities, and sent to psychiatric hospitals. We often see these various miseries reported by the media, and even worse is how a small number of local governments even employ evil forces to deal with petitioners who get to Beijing. The revelations about the black jails of Beijing’s Anyuanding [Company] are a classic example. These frequent barbaric interception incidents have seriously distorted the implementation of a petitioning system intended to give citizens more channels for pursuing their rights. For this reason, in recent years there have been repeated public calls for abolition of these petitioning rankings.

Under these circumstances, Hefei’s continued support for petitioning rankings shows how reluctant some local governments and officials are to part with some of these simplistic and crude models of social management. Apparently, “suspension of rankings” by the State Office of Letters and Visits had an insufficient modeling effect, and it was unrealistic to expect all local governments to terminate petitioning rankings voluntarily. The complete withdrawal of petitioning rankings from the historical stage will rely on resolve and action from the central level. We should also note that petitioning rankings are not the only factor leading to barbaric petitioner interceptions. Even if there were no petitioning rankings, local officials would still have intrinsic motivations to block and intercept petitioners. This is a function of the petitioning system itself. Most petitions originate from conflicts between local governments and the public. The public hopes to use the petitioning system to “get heaven’s ear,” but to local government this is “whistleblowing” and “exposure.” In order to protect their own interests, when there are conflicts between officials and the public, it’s natural for some officials’ first choice to be to block and intercept the petitioning public.

Admittedly, in a historical phase when rule of law development is just beginning, the system of letters and visits is a channel that society gives to the public to remedy [problems]. But as we make good use of this petitioning channel, we must speed up the perfection of rule of law channels so that citizens who encounter problems are able to first consider making use of legal weapons to realize the demands of their rights and interests. A society that wants to establish benevolent rule must rely heavily on the power of the law and the judicial system. Only when society puts its common faith in the law and not some “higher authority” can all of the problems arising from the petitioning system be readily resolved.