Stemming the Tide of Complaints

Beijing tries to reform the complex system for handling public grievances.

china-petitioners-reform-30.jpg Women petitioners kneel and cry as they hold placards to register a local complaint outside a court in southwest China's Chongqing municipality, May 13, 2010.

China's Supreme People's Court has changed the rules on the filing of public complaints in an attempt to stem the rising tide of ordinary citizens' grievances against the country's judicial system.

The new measures include a "risk assessment system" for receiving petitioners' complaints, and call on government and judicial departments at every level to step up measures to "prevent the launching of appeals and complaints," official media reported.

Those departments should work to improve the quality of complaints submitted and work harder to resolve social tensions at the local level, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The rules on the reporting of complaints would be tightened, and individual responsibility linked to cases, according to a communique from the Supreme People's Court, issued shortly after a visit to petitioners by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

The measures included new target times for complaint resolution and "expiry date," preventing petitioners from filing the same complaint more than once.

The move also called for more mediation services and dispute resolution mechanisms at the local level, spanning various branches of government.


Wen visited petitioners in Beijing ahead of the lunar New Year holiday, calling on people to criticize and "supervise" the government and ordering officials to take more responsibility for complaints.

But lawyers and petitioners say Wen's visit will have little real impact in the absence of a truly independent judiciary.

The Supreme People's Court in Beijing received more than 35,000 complaints in 2010, with 24,000 of those filed on the court's complaints website, official media reported.

China's petitioners, many of whom sleep rough in the underpasses of the capital as they attempt to complain against the ruling Communist Party, are increasing in number annually, officials say.

In 2007, courts at every level of government received more than three million complaints. Many more cases are never accepted by complaints offices, petitioners say.

Petitioners complain that they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.

Court decisions

Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the majority of petitioner cases he accepts involve complaints under police procedural law and complaints over court decisions.

"I think people feel a huge pressure [to keep petitioning] when they are dissatisfied with a decision," Liu said.

"There are also cases in which pressure has been brought to bear outside of the law."

"Sometimes the court officials know that there is a problem with making such-and-such a decision, but they are under a lot of pressure from all sides," he added.

Many of the cases taken on by lawyers like Liu are attempts to win redress for alleged cases of official wrongdoing—including forced evictions, beatings in custody, and corruption linked to lucrative land sales—for decades.

"It is very hard for the courts to deliver justice in cases such as these," Liu said. "And when the decision is made, people get angry and start petitioning."

Long history

Petitioning authorities for redress has a long history in China.

The current system, set up five decades ago to serve as a bridge between the ruling Communist Party and the people, seldom resolves problems, instead sparking further detentions, beatings, and harassment of those who dare to complain, according to petitioners and social activists.

The contemporary "letters and visits" system was formally established in 1951 and reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

China says it receives between 3 million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, with the number peaking at 12.72 million in 2003.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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