Chinese authorities report overwhelming success in resolving citizen grievances and reducing the numbers of petitions brought through the xinfang (letters and visits) system since the amendment of the national xinfang regulations in 2005. But a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) suggests that the core institutional problems with the system continue unchecked.
Chinese citizens commonly rely on petitioning Party and government xinfang bureaus for official redress of their grievances, presenting millions of such petitions annually. Chinese authorities themselves note that many such petitions are in fact grievances that should technically be resolved through other channels such as litigation, arbitration, or administrative reconsideration. Despite heavy reliance by Chinese citizens on petitioning practices and xinfang channels, they rarely provide redress, and are linked to a wide range of abuses of petitioners. For information on such abuses, see the 2005 Human Rights Watch report on the subject.
In 2005, Chinese authorities amended the national xinfang regulations and mounted a large-scale implementation campaign led by the Ministry of Public Security, according to the citizen petitioning section of the 2006 Annual Report issued by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Authorities did so in an effort to improve social stability, through reducing the number of petitions presented through xinfang channels (particularly large scale mass petitions), improving officials' ability to resolve citizen grievances, and reducing abuses of Chinese petitioners.
For more information on citizen petitioning, the xinfang
system, and the 2005 amendments to the national xinfang regulations, see this
So what have been the results of these efforts over the last two years?
Chinese authorities report overwhelming success in reducing the number of citizen petitions. Total numbers of citizen petitions declined in 2005, after increasing each of the 12 prior years, according to the April 29, 2006 press statement of an unnamed official from the national xinfang bureau, the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, posted on the central government’s website. Total numbers of petitions to Party and government xinfang bureaus at the county-level and higher totaled 12 .656 million in 2005, compared with 13.73 million in 2004, representing a 7.9 percent decline. Petitions to the State Bureau of Letters and Calls held relatively steady at 603,000, while the corresponding numbers of in-person visits to provincial, prefectural, and county-level xinfang bureaus declined by 8.9%, 9.2%, and 9.3% respectively, compared with 2004. In-person petitions and collective petitions registered steep declines at all levels of government, while petitions submitted to national xinfang authorities by mail increased, according to the statement.
Chinese authorities report that petitions continued to decline in 2006. From 2005 to 2006, there was an additional 15.5% decline in the total number of petitions, according to a March 28 Xinhua article posted on the China Court website. The same article also reported that the number of mass incidents, collective petitions, and "abnormal" in-person petitions also declined, without providing precise figures for any of these categories.
These efforts have been accompanied by a major push by Chinese authorities to improve mechanisms for handling grievances” (矛盾纠纷排查调处机制). Specific reforms include new moves to ramp up the use of mediation in handling civil as well as administrative litigation.
So are official reforms a success?
It’s unclear. But several facts call into question official claims regarding the success of these efforts.
First, official information regarding expressions of
social discontent, such as the numbers of petitions or mass petitions, should
be considered carefully. Over the last
two years, Chinese authorities have also made broad assertions regarding large
percentage declines in the numbers of mass incidents. Indeed, mass incidents and mass petitions
frequently bleed together in practice. But just as official bars on the media reporting of mass incidents raise
questions as to whether these numbers have indeed declined, so too should it
raise questions as to the accuracy of the reported declines in
Second, a 2007 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report has found that many of the problems associated with the xinfang system have continued unchecked, according to an April 5 Southern Weekend report. The CASS report found that local authorities' practice of using retrievers to intercept petitioners seeking to present their grievances to higher level authorities remains extremely serious. Chinese authorities use of xinfang responsibility systems (that discipline local officials whose jurisdictions produce large numbers of petitioners to higher authorities) creates strong incentives for local officials to resort to these repressive measures. Even still, citizen petitioning continues. The article quotes one xinfang bureau official as stating "a xinfang bureau only has so many people, all of our energies are spent on retrieving petitioners, but this is a task that can never be completed." The CASS report notes that other localities simply resort to incorrectly reporting petitioning statistics in an effort to avoid sanctions from higher level authorities.
Third, the 2005 amendments actually strengthened all of
the institutional incentives that underlie the abuses and problems associated with the xinfang system. (Relevant discussion is on pages
133-5 and 177-9 of this article). Absent an effort to grapple with these
institutional problems, it isn’t surprising that the CASS report doesn’t find