The Chinese government has applied a modern solution to China’s ancient tradition of petitioners travelling to Beijing to seek justice, but a new website to collect complaints seems to have retained many of the flaws of the old system.
The numbers of Chinese who petition in search of redress ranging from compensation for seized land to justice for murdered relatives is staggering. Over 6m Chinese submitted petitions in the legally approved way in the first 10 months of 2013, according to the bureaucracy set up to receive their complaints.
In the absence of democracy, the ancient system of petitioning is supposed to act as a social safety valve, allowing subjects to complain directly to central government about regional leaders in the provinces.
Zhang Enxi, deputy director of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, pledged “one-stop reception, co-ordinated management, and complete resolution” as he unveiled a progress report on the new website on Thursday.
But petitions received through the website are still referred back to local authorities for resolution, a practice that puts the supplicants directly back into the hands of the people accused of causing the problem in the first place. Of the 137,000 cases submitted to the new website the bureau set up this summer, 95,000 were passed along to other bureaucracies while the rest were declared redundant or otherwise invalid.
A lot of people are quite savvy with the internet but moving it online doesn’t solve the problem of how the issues are addressed,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, adding that petitioners who persist after initial complaints are not answered often face punishment.
Many people have been on the petitions trail for years, bouncing back and forth between Beijing and their hometowns without redress.
“I’ve done everything, I’ve been through all the procedures, and they still won’t resolve my case,” a weeping woman named Zhao Min from Xingtai in Hebei Province told the Financial Times while plainclothes policemen filmed an impromptu protest outside Thursday’s press conference. She has been petitioning unsuccessfully since 1997 for punishment for the crowd of drunks who killed her 16-year old son on the street outside her home.
Most petitions relate to rural land grabs or destruction of houses for urban construction, with labour and pension issues the third major category. But the desperate petitioners who flock to Beijing often bear more personal tales of unpunished murders, fatal police beatings, deaths due to medical negligence or private mines seized without compensation.
Mr Zhang said there will be a greater effort to divert legal cases to the judicial system. In China, courts are also often directly under the control of the local government but reforms announced during a policy gathering of the ruling Communist Party earlier in November included pledges for a more independent judiciary.
Chinese police vans are regularly stationed at the entrances to Tiananmen Square and other gathering points to intercept petitioners. Petitioners gathering outside the UN embassy in Beijing this month – shortly before China won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – were so numerous that police buses were dispatched to pick them up.
Some petitioners have suffered so much injury or become so obsessive in their quest that they lose sight of their original complaint. Xu Dajin of Jiangsu Province began petitioning after thugs hassled him for complaining about mining wastewater that destroyed his tea oil trees. He got some compensation, but he thought it was not enough. The damage destroyed his chances of saving up enough money to get married, he said. “I felt despair because the government said it would be resolved but it never was,” he told the FT.
By his own admission, Mr Xu has attempted suicide while on the petitions trail. “I didn’t have a cent left, I hadn’t eaten in a few days, and I was afraid they would send me back to the local government.” He waded into a canal in Beijing but was fished out by police, who shipped him off to a mental hospital in his home town.
Chased down in a Beijing park a few weeks ago, Mr Xu is once again in a mental hospital in Jiangsu, which refuses to release him to the care of his mother and sister.
A mental health law that took effect on May 1 2013 requires admissions to be voluntary and under a qualified physician’s supervision. But Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a group that tracks activism in China, says incarceration in mental health institutions is still often used to get rid of awkward, persistent petitioners and other troublemakers.
Mr Zhang declined to give statistics on how many petitioners have been sent to mental institutions. He also denied that “legal petitioners” are held in extralegal or ‘black’ jails, the most notorious of which, Majialou in Beijing, can hold hundreds of people at a time to be collected and sent back to their home provinces.
上周四，中国国家信访局(State Bureau for Letters and Calls)副局长张恩玺在发布新网站的进展报告时，承诺实行“一站式接待、一条龙办理、一揽子解决”。
人权观察(Human Rights Watch)驻香港的研究员阿莲(Maya Wang)说：“许多人对网上投诉的操作方法相当熟悉，但网上受理并没有改变处理问题的方式。”她还表示，首轮投诉未获答复、但仍坚持上访的人往往面临处罚。
中国警方的巡逻车经常布置在天安门广场的各个入口和其他聚集点，以拦截上访者。上月，在中国赢得联合国人权理事会(UN Human Rights Council)席位前不久，聚集在联合国(UN)驻华系统门前的上访者如此多，以至于警方出动警用巴士把这些人拉走。
2013年5月1日起施行的中国《精神卫生法》规定，精神障碍的住院治疗实行自愿原则，并在一位有执业资格的医生的监护下进行。但追踪中国维权活动的团体——中国人权捍卫者(Chinese Human Rights Defenders)表示，为了摆脱难办、固执的上访者和其他麻烦制造者，将他们关押在精神卫生机构内的做法仍经常被使用。