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.