China's elite stirs up 'paranoid' petitioners
By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, China - Amid breakneck economic growth and anger over a widening wealth gap, recent controversial comments by China's upper classes have strained the public's tolerance.

For example, after Sichuan province was hit by an eight-magnitude earthquake on May 12 last year, Wang Shi, the chairman of China Vanke, a leading property developer , asked his employees not to "donate more than 10 yuan (US$1.46) to afflicted compatriots". Mao Yushi, a reputed economist, recently said "low-cost housing [for low-income families] should not be equipped with a toilet".

Then, in early April, Sun Dongdong, a professor of forensic psychiatry at Peking University, said when interviewed by China Newsweek: "I have no doubt that at least 99% of China's pigheaded, persistent 'professional petitioners' are mentally ill - they are all paranoid. If you investigate, you will find that the problems they are whining about have actually been solved already."

China's petition system dates back thousands of years and is supposed to be a rare official channel for local people to raise grievances. When efforts in fighting local corruption or other abuses fail to produce results, petitioners often come to Beijing for help. The government says it receives 3 million to 4 million letters and visits from petitioners each year, but rights groups put the figure in the tens of millions.

Sun's comments have therefore stirred a heated debate and strong backlash, despite receiving some support, particularly from intellectual circles. Zhi Miao, a special contributor to ftchinese.com, said Sun had simply voiced his opinion, and that "from the perspective of orthopsychiatry, the compulsive petitioners are paranoid". Zhi said Sun's comments did not degrade or insult the nation's marginalized community of "persistent" petitioners.

However, after a spate of on-campus protests by petitioners and criticism in media commentaries, Sun had to swiftly issue a written apology.

A furious general public cannot simply forgive Sun for his remarks, despite his formal apology. Yu Jianrong, an expert on the petition issue at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said Sun's apology lacked sincerity, and Yu expressed concern that Sun's reckless comments could jeopardize the petitioning system.

For those at the bottom rung of China's social ladder, who often fall victim to local power abuse, petition is usually the last resort. Even a former director-in-chief of the State Petition Handling Bureau, Zhou Zhanshun, has publicly admitted that more than 80% of petitioners raise genuine issues. If this is the case, why do the problems remain unsolved, leading petitioners to pursue their cause constantly and become "professional petitioners"?

The idea that wronged people could bring their complaints to higher authorities - all the way up to the emperor - dates back to the ancient history of the Middle Kingdom. The petition system, xinfang in Putonghua, was designed to keep local officials in check and deliver a message of justice to the emperor's subjects, thereby fortifying the emperor's power and authority.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initiated its own petition system in 1951, with more or less the same functions as the ancient institution. Its system provides a channel for grievances from localities, especially normal working folk, to be heard. This is crucial for such a huge country. The system of governance in China is a combination of centralism and federalism, with a certain degree of autonomy granted to local governments, so central leaders are often unaware of what is really happening at the localities through normal bottom-up channels. The nation's press is also controlled and censored and the judicial system lacks independence.

Therefore, the xinfang system can help reveal power abuse by local officials and help reverse unjust court decisions. Supervision from petition-handling departments, and particularly direct comments and instructions from some higher-ranking officials, can sometimes redress grievances and bring justice to petitioners.

However, the system is inherently flawed. The petition-handling departments usually lack power and have to pass on most complaints to the relevant local authorities. When nepotism is rife and the relations between businessmen and civil servants are dubious, many petition letters, oral complaints and even personal petitions disappear. This explains why so many petitioners choose Beijing as their destination; they simply cannot expect the same local officials with whom they have grievances to provide them with justice.

Petitioners also suffer from retaliation. Eight years ago, Guo Guangyun, a minor official in Hebei province, revealed the activities of Chen Weigao, a provincial party secretary who later was convicted of corruption and removed. As a result, Guo was dismissed from his position, expelled from the CCP and imprisoned for two years. It was not until Chen's conviction that Guo was released.

Guo's tragedy is not an isolated case. Some may still recall a shocking example from 1991. The 20-year-old son of peasant mother in Henan province died after a brutal beating by the local police and mine bosses. After local authorities dismissed her case, she cut off her son's head and carried it all the way to Beijing. Thirteen years later, she was finally compensated with the lowly sum of 5,000 yuan.

In October 2008, Sun Fawu, a farmer from Shandong province, after traveling to Beijing to make his petition, was captured by local officials on the way and detained in a mental hospital for more than 20 days. He was released on one condition: he had to sign a waiver of petition.

After looking at these cases, one can better understand Yu Jianrong's worry that Sun Dongdong's ill-considered remarks are dangerous for petitioners: if 99% of persistent petitioners are mentally ill, they could all be put in mental hospitals.

Still, on April 20, in an apparent response to the Sun Dongdong incident, the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper, published an editorial entitled "Intercepting Petitions Should Evolve Into Accepting Petitions". The report also told the story of a veteran petitioner from a village in a southwestern province who, with his father, had petitioned the same cause from when he was a 17-year-old.

Each year for three decades he had aired his grievances on big occasions such as when national, provincial or municipal meetings were being held, but the government of his hometown always managed to intercept him. Each time he was intercepted the cost was at least 10,000 yuan. The author of the article lamented that the local officials preferred to spend on stopping people petitioning rather than patiently helping them to resolve real problems.

On April 14, China's leadership ordered local officials to step up efforts to address public grievances in their areas amid a surge in complaints that have been brought to the central government. Local officials "should warmly receive the people, patiently listen to their appeals with compassion and responsibility, and make all efforts to solve their problems," one of the directives stated.

But due to its inherently flawed design, the current petition system cannot effectively solve the problems of the petitioners. Rather, turns them into easy prey for retribution by corrupt local officials. Intercepting a large number of petitions has significant administration costs, and can be seen as a waste of public resources. Nevertheless, it has been reported that intercepting petitions is a priority for local governments' liaison offices in Beijing.

But how to address the inherent flaws in the system? Yu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested after an in-depth investigation on the petition system in late 2004 that the system should be closed altogether. His argument was compelling: the system simply does not work. Only three of the 2,000 cases he studied were solved, and then because they had caught the eye of certain powerful leaders and enlightened officials.

According to Yu, the system highlights the failure of rule of law in modern China. His solution is to water down the petition system, enhance the rule of law, and increase the supervisory role of the press and other social sectors. Evidently, Yu's suggested reforms would require much larger-scale political reform, and in the current climate seem much like a pipe dream.

The debate over the petition system will continue. However, at the same time, the petitioners have stood up to Professor Sun's remarks. On April 15, Wang Shuhua, a petitioner, brought a lawsuit against Sun for defaming her reputation. She also demanded 1 yuan as symbolic compensation. The Haidian District Court in Beijing has reportedly accepted her complaint but has yet to decide whether a hearing will be held.

Stephanie Wang is a freelance contributor from Changsha, China.