Four days after the October 17-21 17th Congress of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), the country's government body dealing with public petitions and complaints — the State Bureau for Letters and Calls (SBLC) — held a national conference to map out new strategies to step-up its role in managing China's escalating social conflicts.
The party congress's central theme, in official rhetoric anyway, was building a "harmonious socialist society". It claimed that rising social conflict in China is the "inevitable" result of rising national income, rather than the growing social inequalities and class antagonisms resulting from Beijing's post-1992 drive to restore capitalism — a "market economy" in official rhetoric.
Reporting on the preparations for the CPC congress, the October 12 New York Times observed that local Chinese "officials have tended to ignore central directives on creating a more sustainable and less speculation-driven economy, partly because they still believe that they will not be promoted unless they can show stellar production results in their domains.
"Officials have also used their access to state money and loans from state-owned banks to pour investment into projects that benefit themselves or their friends and family members. Vital sectors such as finance, transportation and energy remain closely held by party-appointed officials and the children of the elite …
"The mass accumulation of wealth by people who have political power has helped transform China from one of the most egalitarian societies in the world to one of the most unequal …
"Because many people believe that wealth flows from access to power more than it does from talent or risk-taking, the wealth gap has incited outrage and is viewed as at least partly responsible for tens of thousands of mass protests around the country in recent years."
The Chinese government has kept statistics on the number of protest actions — what it calls "mass incidents" — separate from those on the number of petitions and letters of complaint. The ministry of labour and social security tallies the former, while SBLC compiles the latter.
But the two forms of expressing grievances are closely related. If petitioners fail to get any satisfactory redress from local governmental authorities, they are likely to express their grievances through local street marches or riots. And if local protest actions do not get results, citizens often send petitions to the central government authorities in Beijing.
The Chinese ruling elite clearly prefers citizens to express their grievances through petitions and letters of complaints rather than street actions.
A September 19 SBLC statement revealed, without specifying a time frame, that CPC general secretary Hu Jintao and other central leaders had issued more than 600 decrees or documents on the issue of petitions and letters of complaints, including the central government's first ever "programmatic document" on the issue in March.
But this approach to tackling the symptoms rather than the root causes of social discontent will not provide Beijing comfort for long. In the September 25 China Development Watch monthly, which is issued by the Development Research Centre of the State Council — China's cabinet — Zhao Shuhei, who has been an officer for 25 years dealing with petitioners, wrote that in the 1990s, petitioning had been the main means through which the steam of social contradictions in China's countryside had been let off.
Zhao noted that the fact that local authorities still tried to impose exorbitant taxes while rural incomes were stagnating was a main source of petitioners' grievances.
Zhao noted that many "rural cadres [officials] are very violent, and can go as far as removing tiles from your roof, confiscate your cows or pigs or even your TV from your home" if peasants do not pay the taxes imposed on them.
Zhao added that though the central government takes these issues very seriously, its counter-measures have not been effective. He observed that the petitions in many cases are a concentrated expression of opposition to gross violations of the rural population's rights by the local authorities, prompting disheartened petitioners to take their grievances to a higher authority.
The local authorities often respond with police repression, according to a July 5 article by Peng Dapeng on the Jihe.org website, which covers on rural issues in China. Peng wrote that it was not unheard of to find on the sides of country roads large painted official warnings reading "Petitioning to a higher authority is a crime".
Peng cited cases where the petitioners were sentenced by local authorities to hard labour camps — typically for three years.
China doesn't release its statistics on petitions systematically. But quoting an unnamed authority, the Shanghai-based Liaowang Dongfang Zhoukan (Oriental Outlook Weekly), published by the official Xinhua news agency, reported in December 2003 that between July 1 and August 20 of that year, 19,000 people in 347 groups petitioned the CPC Beijing municipal committee, while 10,000 people in 453 groups petitioned the CPC's central commission for discipline inspection. Some 40% of the petitions complained about abuses committed by the local law enforcement agencies, 33% about the local government authorities and 13% contained allegations of corruption.
The magazine cited data from the petition bureau of the National People's Congress (national legislature) standing committee, indicating that in the first 11 months of 2003 the bureau had received 52,852 letters of complaint, nearly 20% more than during the same period in 2002. Meanwhile, "mass incidents" in China grew from 10,000 in 1994 to 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004 and 87,000 in 2005.