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Petitioning: The Right to Criticize and Seek Redress

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China's petitioning system is one primary avenue open to people who have been wronged: people subjected to forcible evictions, work without pay, corrupt land grabs, beatings by police, and a range of other abuses, all look to the petitioning system as one way of seeking redress from the government.

The system is based on a historical, cultural, and legal tradition dating back to the beginning of the Chinese empire. Early Confucian texts refer to commoners submitting complaints to the emperor.[1] The current system is a more formal, regulated process enshrined in Article 41 of the PRC Constitution (English / Chinese). This Article states:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary. Citizens have the right to make to relevant state organs complaints and charges against, or exposures of, violation of the law or dereliction of duty by any state organ or functionary.

— Article 41, PRC Constitution

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Why Use the Petitioning System?

The petitioning or xinfang (信访) system (technically, the system of "letters and visits") is one primary means for Chinese citizens to seek accountability for abuse. In the absence of easy access to formal legal channels, petitioning, now codified by the Regulations on Letters and Visits, is critical for directing the complaints of ordinary people throughout the country to the authorities. Most government departments have their own divisions to handle letters of complaint and visits by petitioners.
Petitioning remains a stand-in for a functioning legal system.

Individuals turn to petitioning for a number of reasons. In the absence of other viable avenues for redress, the petitioning system remains critical for individuals seeking to address corruption, environmental pollution, or forced evictions that are perpetrated at the local level, often by corrupt officials. In 2005, it was reported that an official survey found 40 percent of the complaints handled are about police, courts, and prosecutors' offices, 33 percent about government, 13 percent about corruption, and 11 percent about injustice.[2]

Petitioning remains a stand-in for a functioning legal system. From 1998 to 2003, Chinese courts handled 12 million more petitions than formal legal cases. Even mainland legal experts have noted that if the legal system itself were to be strengthened and made available to individuals seeking redress on issues currently directed at the central government through the system of xinfang, the need for petitioning would be lessened.[3]

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Petitioning the Leadership

A professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing estimated in 2006 that only two in 1,000 in-person petitions and only three in 10,000 petitions by letter receive a response.[4] Yet a much higher number of petitions may have merit. A former official from the State Office of Letters and Visits stated in 2005 that more than 80 percent of all petitions are reasonable and who could be solved by local governments, but local governments fail to do so.[5]

Despite regulations that emphasize the importance of handling matters at the local level, petitioners unhappy with the lack of response often pursue the matter at higher local, provincial, or national levels. Throughout the system, petitioners submit their complaints but often receive no response, or responses they are unhappy with, prompting them to seek answers at higher levels.

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New Legal Constraints on Petitioners

In this section:


In January 2005, the State Council of the People's Republic of China adopted new regulations on the system of xinfang, which became effective on May 1, 2005. According to the deputy director of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls (the national bureau handling petitions), the revised regulation was passed to address problems with the petitioning system, including:

  • Increasing number of petitions aimed directly at higher authorities

  • Petitioning in large groups

  • Petitioning across different provinces, involving different government departments

  • Disruption to public order brought about by "inappropriate petitioning"[6]
The 2005 regulation made some improvements to the organization and streamlining of the system. However, the most significant change was curtailing the ability to appeal directly to higher authorities, particularly in Beijing, and setting a number of constraints on the behavior of petitioners.

Prohibiting certain activity in petitions

Article 20 of the Regulations on Letters and Visits prohibits six kinds of activity, including: illegal assembly outside government offices or public places;[7] intercepting official vehicles;[8] and lingering at the reception desk of xinfang offices.[9] A catch-all clause also prohibits any other acts that "disturb order in a public place" or "impair state or public security."[10] The Regulation, however, does not define these terms, and its provisions can therefore be applied arbitrarily as a means of silencing petitioners.

Warning and punishing petitioners

Article 47 of the Regulation authorizes xinfang officials or public security officials to dissuade, criticize, educate, warn, stop, or punish petitioners, including detaining them for 15 days for violating Article 20 of the regulation or other laws or regulations such as the Law on Penalties for Offenses Against Public Order[11] and Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations.[12]
The Regulation, however, does not define these terms, and its provisions can therefore be applied arbitrarily as a means of silencing petitioners.

Localities have adopted their own regulations complementing the Regulations on Letters and Visits. As the national capital, Beijing attracts many petitioners seeking assistance from the central authorities when local officials do not resolve complaints. Beijing municipality promulgated its own local regulation on xinfang, the Beijing Municipal Regulation on Letters and Visits,[13] in September 2006. This municipal regulation incorporates more provisions regulating the behavior of petitioners than the national one. For example, it prohibits petitioners from lodging a petition at a place not assigned to receive in-person visits,[14] committing suicide,[15] disturbing the regular work routine of government offices,[16] and obstructing officials from performing their duties.[17] The Beijing xinfang regulation also empowers Beijing police to punish petitioners who violate Article 58 of the Beijing Municipal Regulation on Letters and Visits, much like the national regulation.

Restricting group petitions

Article 18 of the Regulation on Letters and Visits stipulates that if a group of petitioners intends to visit a government office to lodge a similar complaint, they shall be represented by a group of no more than five representatives. There are also other laws that local governments can use to clamp down on petitioners for "illegal assembly" and "inciting, conspiring, coercing, financially seducing and manipulating from behind the scenes" others for petitioning.[18]

Streamlining the system at a cost?

The new regulations clarify the function and responsibilities of the Letters and Calls Offices at various government levels. Article 7 requires governments at all levels to establish a system that will effectively hold officials accountable for malfeasance and neglect of duty, and to incorporate government's work on handling petitions into the assessment of the performance of local officials.

However, the pressure on local officials to keep petitions at the local level without bringing them directly to higher authorities can adversely affect petitioners by inviting more crackdowns. In a 2005 survey taken shortly after the new regulation was passed, 60 percent of the more than 70 cadres in local level Letters and Calls Offices thought that local government and CPC officials would employ harsher tactics to crackdown on petitioners if petitioning became one of the criteria to review their performance.[19] This explains in part official statistics that show a more than 15 percent decrease in the number of petitions nationwide in 2006 as compared to 2005, with a total of 12.7 million.[20]
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Other Tactics Used to Suppress Petitioners

In this section:
A variety of tactics have been employed to curtail and restrict the activities of petitioners by the authorities. Widely reported tactics include detention, forced retrieval, beating, surveillance, house arrest, abuse, sentences of Reeducation-Through-Labor, forced admission to psychiatric hospitals, and the detention and harassment of family members.[21] "Softer" tactics, such as restrictions on housing, denial of medical treatment, and forcing petitioners to sign agreements to stop petitioning, are increasingly used.[22] All of these tactics employed directly inhibit the lawful right of Chinese citizens to petition the government, and violate international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Forced clearances and retrievals

Because of the preference among petitioners—particularly those who have met with resistance or lack of response at the local level—to petition the national government, many make their way to Beijing. Petitioners away from home often settle in so-called "petitioners villages" on the outskirts of Beijing. These are routinely and often violently cleared by authorities, particularly in advance of international events or national meetings such as the National People's Congress.[23] Individual and group petitioners are often prevented from petitioning (jianfang, 截访) by local or provincial authorities. Officials or "hired thugs" are sent to "retrieve" petitioners and send them back to their homes.[24] Petitioners are intercepted by those officials or "hired thugs" on their way to Beijing or provincial petitioning offices.
Plight of a Petitioner:
The story of Zheng Dajing

Hubei Petitioner Zheng Dajing (郑大靖) is one of the many petitioners who has suffered severely as a result of his petitioning activities.

Zheng began petitioning after hired thugs employed by corrupt officials tore down his house. On September 5, 2007, Zheng published a letter addressing leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting about the deteriorating human rights standards in China, and the persecution of petitioners.

On September 7, Zheng was kidnapped in Beijing by interceptors from Hubei while he was attempting to petition the central government, and was forced to return to his hometown. On September 9, 2007, Zheng was detained by the Shiyan City, Yunxi County, Hubei Public Security Bureau for "petitioning leading to disturbance of social order." Zheng was not held at a detention center but a "black jail" at Yancao Station in Hongtai Yuansigou Village, which was specially designed to hold petitioners. During his time in detention, Zheng was beaten by guards and abused.

His whole family has been affected by his petitioning activities. In July 2006, Zheng's wife and seven-year-old daughter were detained for 65 days. On another occasion, the local government attempted to send his wife, Cao Xiangzhen (曹祥珍), back to Hubei. Fearful of being kidnapped, Cao was forced to give up her job in Beijing. The family, including Zheng and Cao's seven-year-old daughter, now has no way of supporting themselves in Beijing.

Zheng and his family are not alone: thousands more petitioners have been similarly treated, simply for exercising their legal rights.[30]

Detaining petitioners

One of the most disturbing trends suppressing petitioners is the use of "black jails" (heijianyu, 黑监狱) to detain petitioners specifically. These centers operate without legal recognition and their existence is denied by government officials.[25] When a British reporter from Channel 4 managed to visit one of these facilities in Beijing, he was beaten up by guards and then arrested by Beijing Public Security Bureau officers.[26] Petitioners have been detained in these facilities for days, weeks, or months on end in overcrowded cells, and subjected to beatings and torture.[27]

Petitioners have also been threatened with psychiatric incarceration,[28] a threat that has been carried out in some instances, including in the case of petitioner Mao Hengfeng. Other venues, including private "guest houses" or hotels, have been used by local authorities to detain petitioners. Moreover, petitioners have reported petitioner "education centers" (shangfang renyuan jiaoyu zhan, 上访人员教育站) in Shandong Province.[29] In one example, petitioners have been held and put through education sessions in a center in Yantai City, Shandong Province, since 1995. According to a former detainee, petitioners held there are subjected to regular physical and verbal abuse by personnel at the center.

Incentives for cracking down on petitioners

These tactics, which dissuade or prevent petitioning, involve significant cooperation between the Beijing Public Security Bureau and provincial authorities. Beijing authorities can receive 500 yuan per petitioner turned over to provincial authorities.[31] Provincial authorities provide this money because county public security bureaus are awarded 2,000 yuan for detaining a petitioner. Additionally, if the petitioner is criminally sanctioned, then the county public security bureau, local protectorate, and court will receive 6,000, 2,000, and 2,000 yuan respectively.[32]

There are a number of different goals behind the use of these tactics. One of the underlying concerns of the central government in dealing with petitioners in such a way is the need to maintain social stability. Petitioners have been able to organize mass protests and gain mass support through public petitions, using their numbers in order to more effectively draw attention to their cause.[33] The mass organization of people in any form is seen as destabilizing, which the central government aims to closely monitor and curtail. Local governments, on the other hand, are more concerned with petitioners that may expose local corruption and malfeasance, even if the petitions are ineffective. In order to minimize potential fallout from information or allegations in petitions that may be released publicly, provincial authorities may resort to extreme measures, such as detention or retrieval, in order to restrict the activities of petitioners.

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[1] Jonathan K. Ocko, "I'll take it all the way to Beijing: Capital appeals in the Qing," Journal of Asian Studies 47, no. 2 (May 1988): 294.

[2] "Draft Amendment to Tegulation on Petitions Passed in Principle," People's Daily, January 6, 2005, http://english.people.com.cn/200501/06/eng20050106_169769.html.

[3] "Will the Revised Regulations on Petitions Lead to a Wave of Petitioning Activities?" [新信訪條例會否帶來新一輪信訪洪峰], Nanfang Weekend [南方周末], January 20, 2005, http://www1.nanfangdaily.com.cn/b5/www.nanfangdaily.com.cn/southnews/zmzg/200501200956.asp.

[4] Professor Yu Jianrong at "Seeking Justice: Is China's Administrative Petition System Broken?", Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 05, 2006. See also David Fang, "Courts May be Shielded from Petitions," South China Morning Post, January 8, 2005.

[5] "China Issues New Regulation on Petitions to Protect Legitimate Rights of Petitioners," Xinhua News Agency, January 17, 2005.

[6] Wei Jinmu [卫金木], "An Important Policy to Promote a Socialist Harmonious Society" [推进社会主义和谐社会建设的重要举措], Mishu Gongzhou [秘书工作] 8 (2005): 43.

[7] Decree of the State Council of the People's Republic of China No. 431, Regulations on Letters and Visits [信访条例], adopted at the 76th Executive Meeting of the State Council January 5, 2005, and effective on May 1, 2005, Article 20, para. 1, available at http://www.china.org.cn/e-news/news050428-3.htm.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., Article 20, para. 4.

[10] Ibid., Article 20, para. 6.

[11] Law on Penalties for Offences Against Public Order [中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法], issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress [全国人民代表大会常务委员会], promulgated August 28, 2005 and effective on March 1, 2006, available at http://www.chinacourt.org/flwk/show1.php?%20%20file_id=104073.

[12] Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations [中华人民共和国集会游行示威法], issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress [全国人民代表大会常务委员会], promulgated and effective on October 31, 1989.

[13] Beijing Municipal Regulation on Letters and Visits [北京市信访条例], issued by the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of Beijing Municipal [北京市人民代表大会常务委员会], promulgated September 15, 2006 and effective on January 1, 2007, available at http://www.gjxfj.gov.cn/2006-11/07/content_8455385.htm.

[14] Ibid., Article 58, para. 1.

[15] Ibid., Article 58, para. 2.

[16] Ibid., Article 58, para. 3.

[17] Ibid., Article 38, para. 6.

[18] Yu Jianrong [于建嵘], [信访制度改革与宪政建设围绕《信访条例》修改的争论], Twenty-First Century [二十一世紀] 89 (June 2005): 71-79.

[19] Ibid.

[20] U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Annual Report 2007 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007), http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt07/CECCannRpt2007.pdf.

[21] Human Rights in China, "Shanghai Petitioners Detained following Protests," April 12, 2007, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/35890; Human Rights Watch, We Could Disappear at Any Time: Retaliation and Abuses Against Chinese Petitioners, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005), http://hrw.org/reports/2005/china1205/china1205wcover.pdf, 46-54; Fang Yuan, "Secret Jail for Detaining Petitioners Revealed in Beijing" [访民在驻京办黑监狱受虐待令人发指], Radio Free Asia, January 22, 2008, http://www.rfa.org/mandarin/shenrubaodao/2008/01/22/fangmin; "March 2007: News Wrap-Up: Crackdowns on Petitioners Continue," Human Rights in China, March 9, 2007, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/34388, n3; Human Rights in China, "Petitioner Round-up Brings Threat of Psychiatric Incarceration," September 19, 2005, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/24875; "Seven-Year-Old Held Hostage for 65 Days over Father's Petitioning Activities" [父亲赴京上访 7岁女童'学法班' 被关65天], Radio Free Asia, October 08, 2007, http://www.rfa.org/mandarin/shenrubaodao/2007/01/08/hubei/; "Hubei Petitioner Liu Xiaoqun Escapes from House Arrest" [湖北访民刘小群逃脱当局软禁], Radio Free Asia, January 16, 2008.

[22] [十七大后访民盼望新政出台 保障基本人权尊严(带录像)], Radio Free Asia, October 25, 2007 http://www.rfa.org/mandarin/shenrubaodao/2007/10/25/shangfang/; Human Rights in China, "Petitioner Chen Xiaoming Dies Under Belated Medical Parole," July 12, 2007, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/44230; Xin Yu, "Heilongjiang Petitioners Detained and Abused in 'Rescue Station'" [黑龙江访民被关押在救助站内并遭虐待], Radio Free Asia, November 2, 2007, http://www.rfa.org/mandarin/shenrubaodao/2007/11/02/fangmin/. See Human Rights in China, "Detained Petitioners Finally Released After Close of Party Congress, Special Olympics," November 8, 2007, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/45493 and "Shanghai Update: House Arrest of Zheng Enchong, Mass Detention of Petitioners for Party Congress," October 16, 2006, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/31085.

[23] See Human Rights in China, "Detained Petitioners Finally Released After Close of Party Congress, Special Olympics," November 8, 2007, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/45493 and "Shanghai Update: House Arrest of Zheng Enchong, Mass Detention of Petitioners for Party Congress," October 16, 2006, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/31085.

[24] Ibid n2.

[25] "The Secrets of Beijing's Black Jails," The Spectator, October 10, 2007, http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/247856/

[26] Ibid.

[27] "Black Jails in the Host City of the Open Olympics," China Human Rights Defenders, September 21, 2007, http://crd-net.org/Article/Class9/class97/200709/20070921161949_5739.html.

[28] Human Rights in China, "Petitioner Round-up Brings Threat of Psychiatric Incarceration," September 19, 2005.

[29] Human Rights in China, "Petitioners Expose Abusive Conditions in Shandong 'Education' Facility," February 1, 2007.

[30] "The truth about free speech in China," Channel 4, March 16, 2007, http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/politics/international_politics/
; "China Human Rights Briefing," China Human Rights Defender, September 2007, http://crd-net.org/Article/Class9/Class10/200710/20071009115344_5927.html; [访民郑大靖发公开信呼吁国际关注中国的人权状况], China Human Rights Defender, September 10, 2007, http://crd-net.org/Article/fmzj/200709/20070910093301_5603.html; "Human Rights Briefing - September 2007," Amnesty International, September 2007.

[31] Luo Peiqiong, "Beijing Police Turn Petitioners Over to Local Officials For Money" [王桂兰揭发公安倒卖访民], Radio Free Asia, December 19, 2007, http://www.rfa.org/cantonese/xinwen/2007/12/19/china_petitioner/.

[32] Xin Yu, "Internal Document in Hunan Lists Amount of Cash Rewards for State Agents Who Punish Petitioners According to Law" [湖南对江永粗石江镇土地强行施工 内部下发打压上访者文件?], Radio Free Asia, November 20, 2007, http://www.rfa.org/mandarin/shenrubaodao/2007/11/20/hunan/.

[33] For example, see "Large Numbers of Petitioners Arrested During Kofi Annan's Visit to Beijing" [安南访京期间北京大批搜捕上访者], Radio Free Asia, May 23, 2006 and "Human Rights Defender Liu Jie Denied Treatment for Eye Illness at RTL Camp," China Human Rights Defenders, December 28, 2007, http://crd-net.org/Article/Print.asp?ArticleID=6915.

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