Petitioning progresses toward its end New stipulations aim to raise awareness of the rule of law and increase the supervision over lower levels of government
Petitioning, also known as “letters and calls”, is China’s special way of political expression. It refers to citizens, legal entities or other organizations advancing suggestions, opinions and complaints to governments at all levels through letters, e-mails, faxes, telephone calls and visits; with the relevant administrative department addressing the issues raised in the petitions according to the country’s laws and regulations.
It is undeniable that petitions have played a role in political participation, administrative monitoring, soliciting public opinion and solving disputes, but it is also undeniable that the petitioning process is not without problems, such as local authorities thwarting petitioners’ complaints being heard or people bypassing authorities to file complaints at higher levels or relying on petitions instead of trusting the courts.
One survey found that 90.5 percent of the petitioners visiting the State Bureau for Letters and Calls in Beijing were doing so because they wanted the central authorities to know their petition issues, while 88.5 percent of them wanted to put pressure on their local authorities.
And as people’s petitions reflect negatively on the political performance of local authorities and officials, the authorities pay great attention to stopping people from petitioning. Some local authorities have even established petitioner discipline training centers, which blatantly violate citizens’ rights.
The State Bureau for Letters and Calls issued a document onWednesday that represents a major restructuring of the process. TheMethod of Further Regulating Accepting and Handling the Procedure of Petition Issues to Guide Petitioners’ Petitioning at Each Level According to the Law, which will take effect onMay 1, stipulates that the higher letters and calls authorities will not accept petition cases that have bypassed any lower levels. This conforms to the organization and handling procedure of the administrative management authority.
Requiring petition cases be dealt with by the local letters and calls authorities will not only improve the efficiency of the petition mechanism, it will also improve the higher authorities’ supervision over the local authorities. Bypassed petitions overload the higher letters and calls authorities and so reduce efficiency. Meanwhile, the letters and calls authorities at all levels should deal with the petitions in a transparent way and give the petitioners feedback in a time manner.
The decision of the Third Plenum of the Party requires separating litigation from petition, and the document also regulates that authorities of letters and calls will not accept petition cases that should be solved within the framework of the lawand dealt with by the courts. If people object to legal decisions, they should resort to civil law, criminal lawor administrative review. The document also returns dispute settlement to the courts and guarantees their independence when resolving social contradictions.
In fact, with the modernization of the State governance system and the solving of social contradictions according to the rule of law, as well as the establishment of diversified dispute settlement mechanisms, including mediation, arbitration, reconciliation, the petition system should go with the tide of the times and be comprehensively and systematically reformed, before finally being abolished completely at an appropriate time.
Relying on the petition system and strengthening it go against the modernization of the State governance system. One crucial advance in governance has been underlining the function of formal institutions. Giving petitions, which are in essence an informal means of expressing a claim to rights and interests, too much importance in the system of governance undermines the rule of lawand formal State governance system.
The petition system, while it exists, requires the following reforms in the future. First, with the emergence of social media the informative function of petitions has been remarkably weakened nowadays. Authorities can effectively solicit and evaluate public opinion in manyways other than through petitions, therefore the authorities no longer need to depend on the petition system to know what the public is thinking.
Second, the authorities should reduce people’s perception that petitions are the only means of dispute settlement and public participation in politics. The petition system should be gradually reformed so it becomes an independent government accountability office or administrative appeal commissioner, until its final abolition.
Third, the people’s congress system should be strengthened. As representatives of the public, the people’s congress and its standing committees should be the main communication platform between the public and the government, and they should guarantee the orderly expression of public opinion and the public’s supervision of State governance. People’s congress at all levels can establish deputy liaison offices to improve relations between people and the deputies.
Last but not least, we should be alert to people placing obstacles in the way of petition system reform, as the ultimate goal should be to abolish the petition system eventually. The author is a law professor with Peking University.