BEIJING (AP) — China is taking steps to reform its decades-old civil petitioning system, including diverting cases to courts and improving ways of lodging complaints online, in what senior officials say would better address citizens' grievances and alleviate social tensions.
Critics say the measures would be largely futile as long as China's courts lack sufficient independence to properly mete out justice.
"The only solution is if the judiciary is independent and gives complainants justice," Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said. "Anything short of this will unlikely to satisfy petitioners seeking fair treatment.
Details on the new policy were announced at a news conference Thursday at a government compound in Beijing where about a dozen protesters gathered to denounce the ineffectiveness of the petitioning system and air their own grievances in front of journalists.
Zhao Min, from Xingtai city in Hebei province, said she had tried unsuccessfully for 15 years to get local authorities to prosecute those responsible for the slaying of her son.
"I have been to every government department that I can go to, and I have filled out all the forms that I can fill out," Zhao said. "Still no one has been held responsible 15 years after my 16-year-old son was killed."
Government security guards in plain clothes darted through the crowd, seizing banners and posters from the petitioners.
Established in the 1950s, the petitioning system — with offices at all levels of governments throughout China — is supposed to provide a channel for the public to lodge complaints and for policymakers to be kept abreast with social issues.
Every year, millions of complaints are filed about what petitioners see as injustice or incompetence by local officials in issues such as land expropriation, forced home demolitions and labor disputes, or the failure of local authorities to prosecute crimes.
When they fail to get satisfactory answers, the petitioners often go to Beijing to appeal directly to the central government. When their grievances are still ignored, many camp out in Beijing in what is known as the petitioners' village. Activist Huang Qi estimates they number at least 100,000 in the country's capital, with many more making short trips to Beijing.
The system is criticized as ineffective. Huang said government officials are biased in the way they resolve complaints, about 70 percent of which involve abuse of power by local governments in land grabs and home demolitions. A common complaint among petitioners is that local officials cover for each other.
When petitioners attempt to take their grievances to the highest level, local officials often try to prevent them from going to the capital, including by detaining them in illegal "black jails."
Li Gao, a deputy director of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, told the news conference that the central government will no longer rank local governments based on the number of petitions filed in Beijing, in hopes of deterring efforts by local officials to stymie petitioners.
Zhang Enxi, another deputy director of the agency, said the government will do more to refer the kinds of complaints that can be resolved through litigation to the courts. He said the bureau has set up an online platform to accept complaints and will work to improve its transparency, while urging local officials to be more proactive in addressing the grievances.
The moves came after China's top leadership said the government must innovate to improve its management so that it can better prevent and resolve social conflicts.
Huang, the activist, said the national office is only dancing around the real problem. "I can say the access (to lodge complaints) has always been good, but the issue is that the governments refuse to hold anyone accountable, even when the facts are clear," he said.