Written by Samantha Hoffman.

On 25 February, the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) Central Committee and the State Council introduced guidelines on reforming the country’s petitioning system, highlighting the rule of law in handling petition cases and expanding channels for petitioners to address officials. The guidelines have received limited attention in western media—after all, it seems unlikely that they could significantly change the tendency of local officials to silence petitioners rather than address their grievances. While not ground-breaking in terms of petitioners’ rights protection, the guidelines are worth noting if considered within the context of the CCP’s broader social governance policy under Xi Jinping.

The State Bureau of Letters and Calls said that from January to October 2013, it received 6.04 million complaints, or about 20,000 per day, on a wide range of issues— most notably land expropriation, housing demolition, and labour and social protection complaints. Petitioners usually first seek redress of grievances through local officials, but often local officials do not meaningfully respond. After failing at the local level, petitioners typically seek response from provincial and central government authorities. Along the way, however, police or local government hired security companies frequently intercept them. Beatings, imprisonment in “black” (illegal) jails for weeks at a time, and continued harassment of both the petitioners and their family members, are common consequences [1]. Central and provincial governments have a strong interest in ensuring that legitimate grievances are addressed at the local level, and have called for an end to these irregular practices. Yet only on rare occasions do they actually intervene on petitioners’ behalf. Without an independent judiciary, which is unthinkable as long as the CCP is in power, the general response to petitioners’ grievances seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The new guidelines also include the goal of preventing and reducing the occurrence of mass incidents by addressing the sources of social conflicts. They call for improved dialogue between stakeholders, which requires better decision-making mechanisms and procedures, and increased transparency and public participation in the decision-making process. This is consistent with the social governance concept of diversified participation in governance that aims to address these day-to-day causes of social instability in China. Social governance, as explained regularly in Party/state media editorials, intends to improve participation channels to meet the ‘reasonable’ demands of the masses while also adhering to the rule of law; it also promotes mediation of civil disputes through grassroots actors’ involvement in social organizations.

An apparent contradiction to social governance policy could be that the phrase ‘civil society’ is one of Xi Jinping’s reported ‘seven speak-nots’, outlined in a May 2013 report: “The Current Situation of the Ideological Front”. While the CCP encourages the development of certain grassroots organisations that work within acceptable boundaries, Party/state media has said ‘civil society’ is a trap where western definitions of the term are misleading or inapplicable in the Chinese context [2]. One article described the social governance policy as adhering to the ‘mass line’ approach, and as maintaining a ‘harmonious’ instead of conflicting relationship between the government and social organizations. On the other hand, it argued that the  ‘civil society’ concept allows for using the idea of doing something for the public interest to actually benefit personal interest and personal gain.

It would also appear that the CCP under Xi Jinping is attempting to make the space for public engagement more confined. One example is the campaign late last summer to silence the influential ‘Big V’ Sina Weibo users who were also civil society advocates, as part of the anti-rumours campaign that intensified throughout 2013. These individuals, however, do not act within the ‘social governance’ framework as it has been defined. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is growing space in China for civil society-like structures, particularly in areas such as public health where local officials benefit from some public engagement. This might be true, but in the context of rights protection how much does this really matter? After all, the Party-State determines which means of public engagement are acceptable. Social governance calls for the involvement of social organizations, but social organizations can only thrive when they act within the acceptable boundaries. These boundaries are uncertain, and in practice local governments call the shots on a day-to-day basis.

This leads to a key problem with the new petitioning guidelines’ call for increased public participation in the decision-making process. As with many regulations in China, there can be a huge difference between central government dictates and local government implementation. Whether or not local officials are inherently corrupt, most have conflicting interests. Concerning petitioners, this means keeping the number of incidents reported down, otherwise job performance assessment could be negatively impacted. A report late last year said that petitioners would be de-linked from officials’ performance standards, and that a related pilot study was underway in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces; however this was not part of the guidelines issued last week. Furthermore, the issues at the root of most petitions, namely housing demolitions, land grabs and labour, are also issues of contradiction for local leaders. Land grabs, for example, are usually to make room for new construction projects— a main source of revenue for local governments. Needless to say, local government interest tends to be in favour of development projects even if there is a notable social cost. To be truly effective in implementing consultation on a local level to prevent or reduce petitions, many other systemic changes would also be required, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

One further aspect of the new petitioning guidelines is to ensure work-style improvement. This includes being sensitive to public opinion and ending undesirable work styles, including formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance. This has been a prominent policy under Xi Jinping, backed-up with the yearlong Mass Line Campaign that began in June 2013. As Peter Mattis and I wrote for this blog last November, the mass line campaign is “designed to put pressure on the party bureaucracy to act in accord with the centre’s dictates by creating a basis of support outside the Party (but not its control).” The petition reform guidelines state that Party officials at all levels should reach the grassroots by implementing the ‘mass line’ education and practices. This supports the idea that the mass line campaign serves as a means to shape social demands on party officials to ensure legitimacy and effective administration.

The new guidelines do little in terms of petitioners’ rights protection, although the Party recognizes that it needs to improve on its delivery of social justice. The guidelines’ purpose is best understood if placed in context of the CCP’s social governance policy as it is being developed under Xi Jinping. Social governance is about managing Party cadres’ relationship with the masses and is designed to shape popular demands on Party cadres—the fundamental goal is to ensure the longevity of the CCP’s position in power.

Samantha Hoffman is a PhD student at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar.

Notes:

[1] For example: Tyler Roney, “The Plight of China’s Petitioners.” The Diplomat, 27 August 2013. Also based on the author’s collection of data on civil unrest events over the past two years, using websites such as: molihua.org, rfa.org, clb.org.hk and wickedonna1.tumblr.com

[2] For example: “Zhou Benshun: Shehui guanli buneng luoru ‘gongmin shehui’ xianjing,” Legal Daily, 30 May 2011; “‘gongmin shehui’ wuguan ‘xing zi xing she’, Global Times, 8 August 2013; and “renmin shehui weihe youyu gongmin”, People’s Daily, 19 July 2013.