China has pledged to revamp its system for lodging complaints against the government as part of a package of reforms announced recently, but rights activists say the changes aren't likely to lead to more justice for petitioners.
Under the reforms, petitions relating to legal and judicial cases will be settled by the courts, while others are being encouraged to make further use of the online system.
"The operation of the online platform has been smooth, and we will guide the public to use the Internet more often to lodge complaints,"complaints bureau deputy director Li Gao told a news conference in Beijing on Thursday.
In July, a petitions website set up by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's "Letters and Visits" complaints bureau crashed on its first day of operation, amid widespread speculation that the sheer number of petitioners had overloaded the server.
Li said the bureau forbids any kind of action that restrains petitioning, or revenge being taken on petitioners, the official English-language China Daily newspaper reported.
However, those who pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained
in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by the authorities if they try to petition a higher level of government.
Hundreds of petitioners dispersed
While state media reported during a high-level meeting of the Party leadership earlier this month that "resolving social injustice and inequality" was high on the reform agenda, police and officials detained or dispersed hundreds of petitioners who tried to voice grievances outside the meeting venue.
Many petitioners are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income who rent ramshackle accommodation in Beijing's "petitioner villages," in constant fear of being detained by officials from their
hometown, who run representative offices in the capital for the sole purpose of reducing the number who complain about them.
Nearly 20,000 grievances are filed daily to complaints offices across China in person, according to official figures released on Thursday.
The complaints website currently receives around 1,200 complaints on any working day online.
Complaints bureau director Zhang Enxi said complaints largely center around "inappropriate" land expropriations, housing demolition and complaints about labor and social protection.
Between January and October, bureaus in charge of public petitioning at, and above, county level received 6.04 million complaints, or about 20,000 a day, he told reporters.
Activists and petitioners remain skeptical that the reforms will bring more justice to the system, however.
"It looks as if they're just shouting slogans right now, rather than reforming anything," Jiangsu petitioner Shen Lixiu told RFA after the news conference.
"They are still detaining people and locking them up. They locked me up for 10 days, and I have heart problems and high blood pressure," Shen said.
Sichuan-based rights activist and founder of the Tianwang rights website Huang Qi said the government had announced a "sunshine policy" for petitioners, that was aimed at facilitating those who seek to blow the whistle on official wrongdoing.
But he said this wasn't the best focus for reform.
"There are many miscarriages of justice that have been made public many times, dozens of times, some of them more than 100 times," Huang said. "The problem is that they still haven't been resolved."
"Just improving the channels for complaints to be communicated isn't the right prescription for the illness," he said.
Huang said the persecution of petitioners is continuing apace, in spite of talk of reform in Beijing.
"The petitioning problem will continue under Communist Party rule, until China moves towards democratization," he said.
"Too many people have suffered violations of their human rights under the Communist Party."
Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.