China’s petition system is not considered part of the judicial system, as one might expect. It is a special apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party and the government, and it has played an important role in modern Chinese history. One director of the Appeals Office at the Ministry of Public Security stated, "The petition system in China originated from people writing letters to our leaders, bringing up problems and suggestions. This dates back to the Yan An times, 1936 to 1948, when people wrote letters to Chairman Mao to make suggestions. In the beginning, the leaders reviewed and handled the letters personally. Later, as more people wrote suggestions, a secretariat office was set up to handle the letters."
In 1950, the Party Central Committee withdrew the Office of the Political Secretariat and established the Office of the Secretariat of the Central Party Administration for the sole purpose of processing petitions and meeting with those who came to file petitions. In November 1950, the Party Central Committee issued regulations requiring "Party Committees at district, provincial and regional levels to establish designated offices or personnel for processing petitions, and to set up systems for registration, research, transfer, inspection and filing." In June 1951, the State Council also issued regulations stating, "The People’s Government at the county level or above must delegate to certain offices to designate staff within the initial budget and billets who will be responsible for handling petitioners and letters from the people, and establish an information desk or reception room to receive people who come and visit." Under instructions from the Party Central Committee and State Council, many local governments set up organizations and designated staff to handle petitions and petitioners.
According to a document formulated by the Office of the Chinese Communist Central Committee and the Office of the State Council entitled "Regulations of Functionality, Internal Structure, and Personnel of the National Appeals Bureau (February 13, 2000)", the National Appeals Bureau reports to the Party Central Committee Administrative Office and to the State Council Administrative Office. The objective of the Bureau is to process letters and receive visitors to keep the appeals channel open for the masses. The routine work of the Bureau is to "report to the leaders in the Party Central Committee Administrative Office and the State Council Administrative Office any important suggestions, complaints, and problems reflected in the appeals letter and visits." The Bureau is also required to "study the information gathered in the appeals, conduct further investigation, and propose suggestions on specific policies and guiding principles."
Since 1950, there have been significant changes from state and party leaders reviewing petitions to where things stand today. The implications have also changed a great deal. The window of the appeals office has become the focal point of various social conflicts, as handling petitions is now a matter of social stability.
For example, the petition system played an unprecedented role after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution. At the time, the Office of Appeals at the Ministry of Public Security had over 70 staff members. Everyday, three to four hundred people lined up, waiting for their cases to be overturned on the basis of wrong or false information leading to their arrest and conviction. From that point on, people started to view the appeals office as a place to overturn injustices. In fact, the Ministry of Public Security has indeed set forth four responsibilities for the appeals office: to internally monitor the Ministry, to receive messages from the public and pass them on to the leadership, to assist the public and help them resolve problems, and to safeguard social stability.
The responsibilities of the appeals office have changed, but not its operation. The most popular way to solve problems is to transfer cases. While Beijing oversees the rest of the country, it cannot take care of everything. Most petitions are transferred back to the local governments. Those who file these petitions follow the paperwork. If the local government cannot resolve the problem, the petitioners are sent back to Beijing. This process became a cycle that petitioners are forced to follow.
Currently, governments at all levels face major challenges in dealing with petitions:
The number of petitioners is increasing
From the State Council to provinces, regions and counties, there are offices where people visit and file petitions of grievances. According to statistics of the Appeals Office of the Ministry of Public Security, it has handled between 50,000 to 60,000 petitions per year in recent years. The Supreme Court and Supreme Procurator have handled around the same number of petitions. This amounts to over a million petitions per year.
Pressure on the local government
The Central Government pays much greater attention to problems brought by petitioners in Beijing. If many petitioners from the same area go to Beijing, the local officials are subject to punishment. Therefore, suppressing people who file petitions has become a new priority for local governments. In some places, people have been hired to monitor the homes of petitioners, but this has not been effective in stopping them from going to Beijing.
The root of the problem
Government departments are obsessed with bringing petitioners under control, but they tend to neglect the root cause of the petitions. A director in charge of one appeals office stated, "First of all, the public has more knowledge of the law in general, and the people are now different from the old days, when they did not know the law and shied away from lawsuits. Secondly, corruption has brought about many problems." He further pointed out that corruption and fraud at the village level have brought about many problems and weakened the state’s power at the local level. This director believed that inadequate initial handling of cases has also contributed to the rise in the number of petitions.
Each petition or letter received by the Ministry of Public Security is registered in the computer. Those not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Security are transferred to the responsible departments. Those under its jurisdiction are sent via official memo, depending on the case, to the provincial department of public security. As for in-person visits by the petitioners, the same procedures apply. Staff members handle petitions differently depending on the situation. Possible actions include sending official memorandums to lower levels of public security departments requesting disposition, requesting the provincial departments of public security to provide results of preliminary investigation and written status reports, persuading petitioners to leave if the matter does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry, and issuing transfer letters to those that need to go to different agencies.
An experienced appeals office staff member characterized the content of the petitions as "an infinite variety of social problems." Most of those who file petitions are from the countryside. They do not have much education, have little knowledge of the law, have no connections with people in power, and have no money to file lawsuits. Most of them sincerely and doggedly believe in the Communist Party and that the Party will find justice for them. When the local petition offices do not resolve their problems, they go up one level, hoping to find someone higher up in the government to champion their cause. Most of them end up in Beijing through this process.
The Appeals Office summarizes the cases in the petition via a "Petition Digest" as feedback to the leaders of the Ministries. One staff member stated, "Sitting here at the reception window of this office, you may come across anything, crimes, street safety, fires, matters involving foreigners ¡ Any business the Ministry of Public Security handles, we have it. Anything it does not have, we have it also." Their greatest fear? That someone who petitioned at their office will make trouble at Zhongnanhai or Tiananmen Square, which would inevitably bring unwanted scrutiny and probably punishment from their superiors. They know that if the problem were not difficult or controversial, the petitioners would not have risked the high probability of retribution to come to Beijing.