By Natalie Thomas
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will encourage people who wish to lodge petitions about perceived injustices to do so online rather than taking their grievances directly to officials, as the government seeks to bring order to an often chaotic and abusive system.
Petitioning has deep roots in China, where courts are seen as beyond the reach of ordinary people. Petitioners often try to take local disputes ranging from corruption to land grabs to higher levels in the capital, Beijing.
Despite international criticism, petitioners are often forced home or held in "black jails", unlawful secret detention facilities where detainees can be subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation and psychological abuse.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, officials from the agency responsible for handling petitions, the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, said petitioners would be much better served by the online system, which will allow people to track their cases and provide feedback on the system.
"This system will place the handling of cases under the supervision of the people," said Zhang Enxi, an assistant head of the bureau.
Studies show only small numbers of petitioners are ever able to resolve their cases, and some resort to desperate measures.
In July, a man detonated a small bomb at Beijing airport after being frustrated about a decade-long legal battle he had tried to resolve via petitioning.
Officials did not provide details of what percentage of cases were resolved, saying only that the number of overall petitions had gone down 2.1 percent year on year in the first 10 months of this year, though the total number of cases was still more than 6 million.
A system which ranks local governments based on the number of petitioners from their area appealing to Beijing offers further incentives for resorting to extreme and often violent means to stop petitioners successfully lodging complaints.
Petitioners who try to escalate their cases by taking them to the capital are often rounded up by men hired by provincial authorities to prevent the central government from learning of their problems.
Li Gao, another of the bureau's assistant chiefs, would not directly answer when asked whether the ranking system would be abolished, though state media has said it is beginning to be phased out.
Li also dodged a question about "black jails", saying people who lodged "normal petitions" had their rights fully guaranteed.
Grievances taken directly to higher levels "are not normal petitioning practices, and are not issues to be dealt with by the petitioning system", Li added, saying petitioners should not leapfrog local officials and expect to be able to deal directly with Beijing.
Underscoring the anger the petitioning system can generate, two dozen petitioners staged a rare protest outside the State Council Information Office where the news conference was happening.
"We've been petitioning for 16 years and we've had no result, nothing. They just ignore you," said a protester from Shanghai, who said authorities refused to compensate her after they knocked down her house.
"We have no options ... we can't live like this," added a petitioner from Jiangsu province, before security forces dispersed them.
(Editing by Ben Blanchard and Robert Birsel)