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Power of petition sows seeds of hope

Updated: 2011-04-07 07:09
By Cui Jia ( China Daily)

Lodging official complaints can lead to harvest of real benefits, Cui Jia reports from Shanxi province.

Li Rulin and seven other farmers from Hengshan village arrived outside the Jizhuang township petition office, in North China's Shanxi province, parked their motor tricycles and barged in demanding to see the Party secretary. They were angry about seeds they bought last year from a distributor promoted by their village committee.

Power of petition sows seeds of hope
Li Rulin, a farmer who unknowingly bought dud seeds from a distributor introduced by his village committee, smokes as he waits at the petition office in Jizhuang township, Shanxi province. Li said he would bring the case to Beijing if local authorities failed to resolve it. Zou Hong / China Daily 
"The seeds were mostly infertile and barely anything grew. We didn't get much when it came to harvest our autumn grain," said Li, 57, the group's leader.

"We lost so much money that we couldn't even afford to buy new seeds to plant this spring."

Members of the village committee are partly responsible, Li said, "because they introduced the distributor to us. But they told us there was nothing they could do about it because we bought the seeds from the distributor - he disappeared later - not them. They must have taken bribes from the distributor'.'

Allegations of bribery are almost routine in grievances about local officials. Also routinely, petitioners take their complaints to higher level officials when they dispute a government decision or believe local authorities have violated their rights.

That is what happens in Jizhuang in Dingxiang county, a farming area with a population of 18,000. The xinfang (petitioning) office that people go to could not be simpler. The 20-square-meter, single-story brick building in the township compound is heated with coal and furnished with worn-out wooden tables and chairs.

But what happens inside might be China's solution to solving people's problem at the grassroots before things get out of hand.

Reluctant agreement

Yan Zhifeng, Party secretary of the township government, is the first official villagers meet when they file a complaint. He listened to Li's story and carefully took notes.

Then he excused himself and, from another office, called the head of Hengshan village committee. Yan's voice rose as he told the leader that the committee is partially responsible for the farmers' losses and demanded that he compensate the villagers by giving them money to buy new seeds.

Yan then returned to his office, offered the villagers cigarettes and sunflower seeds to help them relax, and told them the initial solution. "The police are now after the distributor and by law he has to compensate all your last year's losses after he is caught. Meanwhile, I will guarantee you that all of you will have money to buy seeds in time for the next planting season."

Li stared at the painting of Chairman Mao Zedong on the wall and thought awhile. "Well, if we don't have our compensation within the next three months," he said, "we will go to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls in Beijing." As punctuation, he spat out the shell of a sunflower seed.

'Take us seriously'

Petitioning is an independent administrative system for hearing complaints from individuals that is unique to China. The idea that aggrieved people can take their complaints directly to higher or even the highest authority is rooted in ancient China. The system was continued in modern China to closely link the government with the people. Petitioning is one of the basic rights of Chinese citizens.

Power of petition sows seeds of hope

As the petition office at the highest-level, the bureau (SBLC) is the administrative department under the General Office of the State Council that is responsible for directly handling letters and visits from all over the country.

In October 1995, the State Council issued its Regulation of Petition with 44 items as a detailed guide to respond to problems and pressures. In 2005, the State Council issued a new version with 51 items to better help petitioners as well as to compel local officials to take more responsibility in dealing with petitions.

"We won't actually go to Beijing," Li told China Daily in private. "It's just a threat to officials so they could take us seriously and speed up the process to compensate us because they will be afraid."

"I will try my best to solve their problem so they don't need to go to government at county level or provincial level," Yan had said earlier. "The last thing I want is that they go to petition in Beijing and the most serious scenario is that they go to Beijing in numbers."

'Our last opportunity'

The performance of Yan's petition office is measured with a point system. He receives points if he handles people's complaints well and follows through to a final agreement.

Points are deducted if villagers from his township take their petitions to higher authorities, and even more points if a petitioner makes it to the capital. The point system is widely applied in petition offices or bureaus at all levels nationwide. The purpose is to urge local authorities to solve people's problems where they occur.

Sometimes, however, it prompts officials to stop petitioners from going over their heads. Some even send people to Beijing to persuade petitioners to return home. Those people often wait around the entrance of SBLC's reception office and try to spot petitioners from their territory by listening to their accents or reading their petition letters.

"In some cases, no matter how hard we try to help them (petitioners), they are still not satisfied with the solution. Despite their cases having only moral stands but not lawful ones, they still want to have a go in Beijing," said a petition official who did not want to be identified discussing the matter. "Waiting at the SBLC is our last opportunity to reach a deal with them and gain their trust. It is very frustrating for us, too."

Power of petition sows seeds of hope
Farmers from Hengshan village of North China's Shanxi province file a petition with Yan Zhifeng (center), Party secretary of Jizhuang township at the township's petition office. Zou Hong / China Daily  

In extreme cases, some petitioners said they were illegally held for weeks or months in Beijing. In 2009, a petitioner from East China's Anhui province was raped in the hotel where she and 70 other petitioners were kept.

She said that when she arrived in Beijing on Aug 3, she was intercepted by representatives from her hometown and taken to a hotel in the Fengtai district, where she was attacked by a guard employed to watch the petitioners. The guard was later sentenced to eight years in prison for rape.

When law ranks second

Yan got a tip-off from villagers in another case about three people who planned to go to Beijing to petition over a land dispute in their village. Yan said he met the three at the train station in Taiyuan, the provincial capital, and persuaded them to return home.

"No one could solve their dispute because they don't have any solid evidence recognized by law," Yan said, "but still they'd rather choose to believe in the petition system than law."

Zhang Guanggui, 76, was one of the three. The Shanxi High Court had already issued its final ruling in his dispute, but he still wanted to try his luck in Beijing before he died. "Land is everything to farmers like me," he said.

Power of petition sows seeds of hope
Zhang Guanggui, 76, was en route to Beijing to petition over a land dispute when he was persuaded to return home from the train station in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province. Zou Hong / China Daily 

Yan said he has to closely monitor those who try to petition in Beijing because he wants to keep a good record. He admitted that some local petition officials force people not to go over their heads, such as by locking them in their own homes, which is what they should not do.

"My principle is: if I had an orange I would peel it; if I had an apple I would bite it; if I had a walnut I would crack it," Yan said. "You have to use different approaches when dealing with different people, but never use force. The only way to gain their trust is to help them solve their problem."

One-stop solutions

Yan said that sometimes he can not help villagers because all that petition officers can do is direct complaints to the appropriate departments. Still, the central government wants conflicts resolved quickly so they do not escalate into incidents that affect social stability.

Officials in senior positions at all levels are required to meet personally with petitioners and solve public complaints promptly, according to a written statement from the SBLC.

That puts the petition officer into the role of mediator with the responsibility for a good outcome but without the power to make it happen. If that discourages the petition officers, it also frustrates petitioners.

The government of Linyi, in East China's Shandong province, has come up with a solution. It has turned its district and city petition offices into "people's service offices" staffed with petition officers and officials from social services, education, land and resources and other departments. They are equipped to solve most petitioners' problems there and then.

Since the new offices were set up in 2007, more than 91 percent of petition cases have been closed at the district level. The number of petitioners who went on to Beijing dropped almost 90 percent in the first quarter of 2011 from a year earlier.

"Our approach used to be stabilizing petitioners, which even intensifies conflicts sometimes, but now we've realized that the process of petitioning is the best opportunity to serve the people," said Zhang Wufeng, the city's deputy Party secretary.

Premier Wen Jiabao helped. On a rare visit to the SBLC on Jan 24 this year, he asked officials to address complaints and create conditions for the public to criticize and supervise the government. This marked the first time the head of the government had met petitioners face to face in Beijing since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

Wen urged authorities to respect petitioners. And China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), released in March, clearly states that channels will be expanded for the public to make suggestions and offer criticisms of the government.

Numbers down but ...

In its written statement, the SBLC said the number of cases it received dropped steadily over the past five years. Figures were not provided, but they wouldn't tell the full story anyway, according to Zhang Zonglin, director of the research center of social contradictions run by the Office of Letters and Calls in Beijing's municipal government.

"The number of petition cases filed might have decreased but the intensity of the cases might actually have increased," said Zhang.

The center, which was set up in November 2009, is the first and only government-run petition research institute in China.

"We cannot deny that costs, such as social unfairness and corruption, have been paid to accommodate China's fast economic development," Zhang said. "Xinfang data, which has always been ignored in the past, is the best resource to learn about such costs."

The center's latest study showed that Beijing's social conflict risk has been expanding. Increasingly, petitioners have taken an aggressive attitude instead of a peaceful manner when visiting the petition office. Also, more petitioners arrive in groups rather than individually, which could transform into mass incidents if their problems are not handled well.

The study also found that more people filed their initial complaints with the city petition office rather than their district office. Zhang said that indicates people are losing trust in their local governments, which he finds alarming.

"Officials and authorities should really change their attitude toward petitions," Zhang said. "Petitioners are not trouble. Admitting there is a problem and then solving it is all they want, and it is what officials are supposed to do."

Sun Ruisheng contributed to this report.