BEIJING (AP) — For decades, members of the Chinese public with grievances against local governments have been traveling to Beijing in the time-honored tradition of appealing to the country's highest authorities.
The practice will be banned after May 1 in most cases.
The central government on Wednesday issued a new set of rules, demanding local governments resolve complaints within 60 days, but also banning petitioners from bypassing local authorities, according to state media reports.
Beijing officials say the new regulations would improve the system's efficiency by laying out clear rules for both local mediating officials and petitioners. Critics say the reform — without building an effective, fair way to address grievances at the local level — would be futile or even exacerbate the tensions.
They say petitioners turn to Beijing because they bump into walls locally, where courts and mediation offices lack independence but are controlled by local governments.
"The absence of the last lawful resort (to petition Beijing) would only cause more conflicts between members of the public and the government," rights activist Huang Qi said.
Established in the 1950s, China's petitioning system — with offices at all levels of governments — 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.
China's ombudsman-type agencies at both the local and central government levels, called Offices for Letters and Calls, are charged with channeling the issues to relevant agencies for settlement. But chances generally are slim for the petitioners to hold local officials accountable.
"When court officials have to take orders from local government officials, how can we get our justice?" said Gu Guoping, a Shanghai resident who has been petitioning what he believes to be unfair seizure of his home for more than 10 years.
"Ordinary people do not petition at will. They have no choice but to seek higher authority when they have exhausted local venues."
Beijing has been the ultimate destination. Following the feudal tradition of an "imperial appeal," petitioners frustrated with local governments travel to the capital, hoping they could get the ear of the highest authority and a shot at justice.
When their grievances are still ignored, many camp out in Beijing in what has become known as petitioners' villages, threatening the social stability and undermining the rule of the Communist Party, which considers the petitioners as an embarrassing reminder of shortcomings in its ability to govern.
"No one wants to travel thousands of miles to Beijing, to suffer black jail or other forms of harassment," said Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "To go to the central authority is a big symptom of a lack of effective redress at the local level."
To goad local governments into better solving petitioners' grievances, Beijing once penalized local authorities based on the number of petitioners from their jurisdictions who turned up in the capital and lodged complaints.
Local governments then turned their efforts to preventing petitioners from going to Beijing, intercepting them en route to Beijing and placing them in illegal lockups. Workers at the national bureau have been accused of taking bribes from local governments to erase filed complaints.
China's new administration under President Xi Jinping wants more grievances solved at the root level and referred to courts when appropriate.
It is also eager to discourage petitioners from traveling to Beijing. "We do not need to mince words that it is widely but mistakenly believed among petitioners that the bigger fuss they make, the more likely their grievances will be addressed," an editorial in the party-run People's Daily read.
However, the new measures fail to offer effective ways to tackle grievances at the local level, Wang said.
"Unfortunately, those mechanisms do not appear to be genuinely or fundamentally changing the system," she said. "It is treating the symptom rather than the underlining cause."