Complaint bureau busiest office in Beijing

Updated: 2007-09-02 17:14

BEIJING -- The old peasant, with deeply calloused hands and just one eye, has traveled thousands of miles from his humble village in China's interior to the nation's capital to petition for redress: Some people have occupied his little house and local authorities won't do anything about it.    

At China's top complaints department -- a government bureau with power equal to a ministry -- the 60-year-old Lao Ji finally gets a chance to bend the ear of someone who will listen.    

Standing under the once ubiquitous sign, and the simple and profound slogan of Chairman Mao, "Serve the people", Ji meets Sun, 37, who has been an in-take worker at the department for almost five years but asks not to give his full name.  

This busy office in south Beijing, is the "Xinfang Bureau" of China's central government. Literally translated, Xinfang means "letters and visits". Local governments around the country all have bureaus of letters and visits.    

The bureau and its subsidiaries across China are the official complaints department and together they have handled about 10 million enquiries and complaints a year over the last five years, according to a report.    

The establishment of the complaints department provided a platform for the general public to voice their encounters with injustice and corruption.    

In 2001, the central government's complaints department was further strengthened when it merged with a similar office of the CPC and was given ministerial status.  

The Beijing bureau near the old Yongding Gate may be one of the busiest offices in the city. Dozens of people wait outside hoping they've arrived earlier enough to get to lodge their complaint.  

Most are peasants from outside Beijing. Once they get a number, they're ushered into a hall where they fill out forms and try their best to explain their problems in writing.    

A staff of 30 in-take workers then conducts one-on-one interviews that last up to an hour if required.

Sun considers himself the people's advocate. "We are responsible for each case we take in and we must treat each case as if it is our own business," he says.

Sun is courteous, patient, relaxed and a linguist. Old farmer Ji, however, is nervous and has trouble articulating his complaint. Sun offers the man a cup of water and there's time enough for some small talk before getting down to business. Sun is responsible for petitioners from Central China and so has learned to understand the region's dialects.

On this day, when Xinhua reporters were given permission to sit in on three separate in-take interviews, farmer Ji talks in a heavy Henan accent that is all but incomprehensible to the journalists.

Later Sun explains that some villagers have occupied Ji's house, which was granted to him by the local government. He reported the case to the county government but nothing has been done.

Sun asks Ji about the details of the case and uses a computer to enter his answers in the department's database, making a permanent record of Ji's complaint.

Sun then explains that a report will be made to the appropriate department, which is legally obliged to close the case within 60 days. Ji is also told he will have 30 days to file an appeal if he's not happy with the result.

"The local government will at least have to give you a reply," Sun tells Ji, reassuring him that local officials will face administrative punishment that can include being demoted or fired if they don't act according to laws and regulations.

The interview takes about 20 minutes and Ji appears satisfied. He says after a week in Beijing getting his case heard he'll return to Henan and wait for the results.

Not everyone's problem is as easily settled. In fact, some of the petitioners spend months or years staying in the capital, waiting for a satisfactory reply.

Located a couple of blocks away from the bureau is a complex of houses famed for providing cheap accommodations for petitioners. They pay as little as three yuan ($0.40) every night for a bed in a crowded and poorly ventilated room. "At least it helps them to sustain a prolonged battle for their interests," says one of the owners of the rental houses.

A 72-year-old petitioner, who wished to be referred by his pseudonym Peng Sheng, is a veteran in the village-like complex. The man, who collects garbage to support his stay and petitioning expenses, only wanted to have a court's ruling -- 500-yuan ($66) compensation -- carried out.

When he misses home, the man says, he just commits some minor offenses and the police send him home for free. "I always managed to get a pack of cigarettes or a free lunch from the police," he says.

"We are the venthole for the public," says Xia, another in-take worker who asked that her given name not be used. She's worked for the bureau for 30 years and while she says she likes her job, it comes with a lot of stress.

"Sometimes I'm exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown. Can you imagine every day an army of people come to you to voice their discontent or anger, sometimes with uncontrolled emotions and bad manners?

"I truly understand people who come to us. Their interests have been infringed upon by others or by the government. We should at least try to address their problems," she says.

After decades on the job, Xia says the work of her office is like a "weather vane" of public opinion that directly reflects people's view of how well the government is doing its job.

She noticed in the 1970s most complaints were left over from the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76), while in the 1980s complaints were more related to economic issues. Over the last decade, more complaints have centered on environmental pollution, enterprise reforms and land acquisitions.

Xia says her work is to serve people who are on the bottom rung of society and are without power. "If someone has some power or connection, no matter how little it is, they don't come to this office."

Premier Wen Jiabao told a national conference last month that officials like Sun and Xia must be considerate, responsible and dedicated when handling public petitions and complaints.

"China is at a critical point in its development, in which certain problems may loom large. To build a harmonious society, we need to learn to resolve problems and turn negative situations into positive ones," Wen said.

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