Faced with thousands of complaints about its officials every day, China has moved to ban its citizens from taking petitions directly to the central government without first going through local authorities.
From May 1, departments at higher levels of the central government will not accept petitions that bypassed the local government and its immediate superior, and petitions will be rejected if they are within the jurisdiction of the legislative and judicial branches, according to the new regulations unveiled Wednesday.
However, complaints about corrupt officials of provincial and central governments and petitions about issues that should be addressed across provinces and sectors, as well as those that are not properly handled by provincial governments, will continue to be accepted, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The new rules also instruct local governments to resolve complaints within a period of 60 days, and not to extend that period by more than 30 days, reports said.
"The purpose of this regulation is to clarify the jurisdiction, regulate the procedure and improve the efficiency of handling petitions," Zhang Enxi, spokesman for the State Bureau for Letters and Visits, was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
"It is expected to help citizens file petitions in a stepwise manner,” he said.
Beijing has repeatedly tried to stem the flood of thousands of petitioners who descend on the capital with complaints, often ahead of key political events, when petitioners hope their cases will get a more sympathetic hearing.
But petitioners say corrupt networks of power and influence at local level ensure that a fair hearing is all but impossible, and that they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by local authorities if they try to take complaints to the top.
Sparking new methods?
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi said petitioners would likely come up with other ways of making themselves heard.
"For the authorities to take this channel away will, I believe, give rise to a whole range of new protest methods, including some pretty extreme methods," Huang warned.
Last October, petitioner Ji Zhongxing was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for setting off a home-made explosive at Beijing's international airport after he was crippled in an act of police brutality in the southern province of Guangdong and had failed to win redress for several years.
And in November, a series of roadside explosions near the ruling Chinese Communist Party's provincial headquarters in the northern city of Taiyuan killed one person and injured eight others in an area frequented by petitioners.
Rights activists said the new rules will also do little to stem the tide of petitioners swamping Beijing with complaints.
"At local level, networks of vested interests control every possible channel for complaint: the courts, the prosecution service, and the police," Huang said.
"The only reason people petition in Beijing is because they can't get their grievances heard at the local level."
Guangzhou-based rights activist Xiao Qingshan agreed that the move would likely lead to greater popular unrest.
"If they close off this channel for complaint entirely, then petitioners will hit the streets with protests and demonstrations," Xiao said.
"If they require local governments to deal with all complaints, then the central government will lose control over the local governments."
He said local governments were unlikely to be honest with the public or with higher levels of government about their activities.
"We are in this mess precisely because the central government has tried to get local governments to maintain stability," Xiao said.
"Actually, it's more effective to take to the streets than it is to lodge a complaint," he said. "Petitioning is meaningless; it doesn't solve anything."
Overload of complaints
China's army of petitioners files nearly 20,000 grievances in person every day to complaints offices across the country, according to official figures released last November.
The government's complaints website receives around 1,200 complaints on any working day online. The website crashed on its first day of operation last July, amid widespread speculation that the sheer number of petitioners had overloaded the server.
Petitioners said at the time they were skeptical that it would offer a genuine opportunity to redress grievances.
Many of those who pursue official complaints against government wrongdoing in their hometowns have already done so to no avail for several years; some for decades, petitioners said.
"Some have been petitioning for 20, 30 or even 50 years," Beijing petitioner Han Suhua said after the rules were announced. "The local governments won't deal [with their complaints]."
"So what are they supposed to do?... I can't explain it," Han said. "It's just aimed at curing [the problem of] petitioners and rights activists."
"The government is just passing the buck," she said.
Vulnerable to harassment
Others fear that requiring petitioners to complain in their hometowns will render them more vulnerable to harassment and abuse.
Jiangsu-based petitioner surnamed Shen said she was threatened when she took a complaint to her local government.
"The municipal police and [Communist Party] political and legal affairs committee appropriated our compensation money, so I took it to the complaints bureau, where a city official told me he'd 'sort me to death'," Shen said.
"How will it work to complain at the city and provincial level? They are all in it together," she said.
Repeated calls to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.