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Petitions flow from sense of social unfairness

05-18-2010 14:14 BJT

By Zhou Sitian

Every year, hundreds of thousands of petitioners make their way to Beijing and elsewhere to appeal to the higher authorities.

Their goals are numerous, from redress for local government abuses to the recovery of relatives who have disappeared into the prison system.

Local governments often make efforts to try and prevent petitioners reaching higher authorities, since it can cause embarrassment or even investigations by central authorities if local problems are exposed.

Petitions remain a difficult problem to solve, especially for local governments. Thus, we find that almost all government agencies, including the executive authorities, courts and various levels of the people's congresses, have established their own petition departments.

Despite the importance attached to it, the petition situation has not yet been significantly improved, still less completely solved.

In 2005 the State Council introduced a new set of regulations on petitions, trying to standardize and institutionalize the process.

But in recent years, the number of petitioners has only grown, and being a petitioner has virtually become a job by itself.

The petitioning system is often accused of being an outdated relic of the old idea of individualized "rule of man." There are claims that the normalization or institutionalization of the petition system will undermine the authority of the modern judicial system and the rule of law.

There is some justice to these claims. Petitions can deny the finality of justice, tying up affairs in higher courts for years and years. They reflect individual effort and persistence rather than abstract legal values. But we should look at the reasons why people petition and the ways in which the system functions rather than getting caught up in theoretical claims.

There's a joke in which two petitioners from Shanghai and Henan Province, both of whom have been forcibly relocated from their homes, are talking about their cases.

The Henanese sighs after hearing his Shanghai counterpart's story, "But your compensation for resettlement is so good! Why are you petitioning?" This joke reflects that unfairness is the most common reason people petition.

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