Shenzhen raises iron fist to protests
By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, Hunan - The southern China region of Shenzhen got permission earlier this year to run a pilot program for a radical restructuring of its administration modeled on the liberal system of its neighbor, Hong Kong, to check abuses of power.

No surprise that a city which prides itself on being the most open in mainland China after being used as a hothouse for economic reform over the past three decades should be in pole position for political reforms that could be enacted elsewhere.

The municipality's recent policy decision to treat "abnormal petitioning activities" with an iron fist therefore struck many as a hard blow to its credentials for political and social liberalization. Xinhua, the state-run news agency, even dispatched a sharply worded criticism to head off suspicions that the policy heralded an about-turn in the local authority's soft approach to grievances.

Shenzhen's court, public prosecutor, police and justice department early last month issued a notice banning 14 types of petitioning, including the wearing of clothes emblazoned with protest slogans, sit-ins or street demonstrations, self-mutilation and suicide, and harassing government officials. Punishments range from detention and re-education through labor to criminal prosecution.

The notice sits in sharp contrast to an April 14 central government order for local officials to "warmly receive petitioners, patiently listen to their appeals with compassion and responsibility, and make all efforts to help solve their problems".

That authorities of Shenzhen would dare to launch a policy against Beijing's stance on petioning is an example of "social anarchy at local level in China" said  Zheng Yongnian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.

The Xinhua commentary was a rare public condemnation of local government policy from the center and sent a clear message that Shenzhen acted without the central government's consent.

Xinhua's quick response, calling for "proper handling rather than interception" of petitioners, was an apparent move to quell growing suspicion that Shenzhen's hard line would be followed by Beijing. The signed commentary argued that, despite the irrational nature of "abnormal petitions", the deeper root cause of these petitions should not be ignored. That is, the grassroots don't have normal channels for airing grievances due to abuses of power and corruption in local government and reports point to many complaints unanswered for more than a decade.

The suppression of protests will only lead to even more intensified social conflicts, the commentary warned. Moreover, "abnormal petitioning activities" are not mentioned in any Chinese law.

Given the response from Beijing, Shenzhen authorities may quietly withdraw the policy, though in practice they are likely still to take a hard line on petitioners.

The petitioning system allows citizens who feel mistreated by a local government to file a complaint, either in person or in writing, all the way up to the central government, and is one of the few ways citizens can vent their spleen at a time of growing public discontent over rampant official corruption, abuses of power, and the widening wealth gap.

Reports of collusion between officials and businesses and within local governments themselves and have heightened tensions in China.

Local officials are generally not happy to see petitioning activities taking place under their jurisdictions, which certainly hurt the image of "social stability" and hence their political career. From this perspective, it is understandable why Shenzhen would want to launch a crackdown on "abnormal petitioning activities''. For the local officials, most petitioning activities are "abnormal'' and should be banned.

The gag rule is especially alarming for Shenzhen: given the fact that two of its former mayors have been sacked because of corruption, any move to ramp up punishment against "abnormal petitioners" could be self-deceiving and self-defeating.

Stephanie Wang is a freelance contributor based in Changsha, China.