Petitioners kneel on a highway in Yunnan Province in 2010. Photo credit: Xinhua
Earlier this month, the national newspaper Legal Weekly published an essay by commentator Xie Yuhang that reflects on the phenomenon of “kneeling petitions” in light of a recent incident involving Premier Wen Jiabao.
Following a deadly September earthquake in Yunnan Province, Wen visited the epicenter in Yiliang County to inspect the damage and recovery efforts. There, his motorcade was blocked by a group of farmers seeking redress for local land seizures. Wen reportedly stopped to speak with the petitioners and promised that their concerns would be handled to their satisfaction. More than two months later (shortly after the close of the 18th Party Congress), one of the petitioners, Liang Yonglan, was abruptly taken into custody by local police and given a seven-day administrative detention for “disrupting public order.” She was released the following day after paying a 1,000 yuan bond, but soon thereafter the detention order was revoked and the county police chief dispatched to deliver an apology.
Xie’s essay follows a conventional praise-and-blame model in which the patient and generous manner displayed by China’s premier is contrasted with not only the particular attempts by Yiliang police to punish Liang but also with the more general tendency of some local officials to punish petitioners on the pretext of “abnormal petitioning.”
Aside from its rather fawning portrayal of Premier Wen, Xie’s essay accepts, rather uncritically, the value of petitioning as an institution. The system of “letters and visits,” which offers citizens a chance to protect their rights by communicating grievances to higher authorities, serves many functions in the Chinese governance system. As one of many alternative channels for dispute resolution, the petitioning system helps reduce the burden on China’s courts. In theory, it can also help to resolve disputes before they turn into violent or destructive “mass incidents.” And by channeling information about local corruption or misconduct upward through the bureaucracy, it gives senior officials an opportunity to deal with problematic cadres.
But the petitioning system is also widely seen as being overburdened and ineffective. Observers have long noted that the system tends to push petitioners towards larger and more dramatic actions in hopes of getting the attention of high officials, a tendency reflected in the popular saying: “A big disturbance leads to a big solution, a small disturbance leads to a small solution, and no disturbance leads to no solution.” And because petitioning activity tends to reflect badly on the performance of local officials, there is a natural incentive for them to use a mixture of “carrot and stick” techniques to prevent local grievances from reflecting poorly upon their chances of promotion.
In practice, the petitioning system serves more often as a way of containing grievances (rather than resolving them), in part by fostering expectations of the possibility for official intervention and remedy. If the system functioned as intended, it might not be necessary for someone like Liang Yonglan to take the drastic step of blocking the premier’s motorcade to resolve local problems. Xie may be right that kneeling petitions are designed to minimize risks of retaliation and that Liang’s “kneeling petition” (and the act of petitioning in general) reflects a degree of faith in senior leaders, but one can also read the incident more cynically as a calculated strategy designed to maximize publicity and pressure. As another commentator opined in response to a previous case of kneeling petitioner Zhang Yanhui: “good fortune wasn’t won through her humiliating kneeling but relied instead on the expanded channels for online oversight and the questioning of government brought about by the microblog era.”
Full Trust Lies Behind Kneeling Petitions
Xie Yuhang, Legal Weekly
December 4, 2012
When Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Yiliang County, Yunnan, to inspect the damage after the September earthquake, Liang Yonglan and dozens of other local residents knelt at the village entrance to petition and present their complaints about land seizures to the premier. On November 19, Liang Yonglan was given a seven-day administrative detention by local police on what was called suspicion of disrupting public order. Afterwards, on the 20th, she was released ahead of schedule. Recently, the Zhaotong Public Security Bureau revoked the administrative detention order against Liang Yonglan, and Yiliang County Deputy Mayor and Public Security Bureau Chief Li Jiajun went to Liang Yonglan’s home to apologize.
Kneeling in petition is also a kind of petitioning. Petitioning makes many people unhappy, and thus makes the fate of petitioners rather unfortunate. If you want to petition but also minimize as much risk as possible, kneeling in petition may be a way to make the best of a bad situation.
It’s easy for petitioners to get hit with all sorts of “labels.” Certain locations have issued comprehensive regulations concerning various types of “abnormal petitioning” behavior—such as wearing clothing upon which one’s grievances are written, holding sit-ins, self-maiming, attempting suicide, carrying banners, and displaying petition documents—all of which are equated with deliberately causing trouble and are prohibited. Given this exhaustive list, as long as one petitions, it will be difficult not to “step on a landmine.” Kneeling in petition is probably the best way of avoiding punishment on pretext because it doesn’t come across as malicious or confrontational and shows respect and trust in leaders. Perhaps it’s because of this that Zhang Yanhui, a woman from Huaiyang, Henan, who knelt in petition before [her local] county party secretary, was to some extent “successful.”
But kneeling in petition before the premier is not a small matter. Even if Liang Yonglan were bolder, she wouldn’t dare kneel before the premier’s vehicle if she didn’t have a deep trust in Wen Jiabao.
The facts prove that Liang Yonglan and the others made the right judgment and their trust was not mistaken. Faced with Liang and the other farmers kneeling in petition, the premier not only got out of his car himself, [he also] shook hands with the farmers, asked them about their problems, and indicated that a satisfactory response would be given. Most importantly, it should be pointed out that in judging the nature of the kneeling petitioners’ actions, the premier said: “This is the farmer’s fundamental right and should not be obstructed.”
However, some people have different ideas. They think that blocking the premier’s motorcade obstructs the premier’s official business and “disrupts public order.” To be sure, the premier’s vehicle cannot be blocked for any old reason. A country’s highest administrative leader has many important responsibilities that most of the time cannot afford the least bit of delay. If ordinary people were to block [the premier’s] vehicle over every little matter, how could he handle larger national affairs? But [these defenders of public order] perhaps overlook the special nature of the premier’s itinerary on this occasion—the premier went to inspect Yiliang precisely in order to understand the [local] people’s situation. Even though he went on account of an earthquake, this does not mean that he can only understand the situation relating to the disaster and that other matters cannot be raised. What’s more, Liang Yonglan and the others were not completely ignorant of the “rules”: their kneeling petition only took just over two minutes of the premier’s time.
If the kneeling petition by Liang Yonglan and the others had any adverse effect, it was a loss of face for local officials. If ordinary people resort to kneeling petitions, it shows that they have major grievances—if there is local disharmony, it is because [local] officials have not governed well. That ordinary people don’t turn to local officials when they have grievances shows that they either have no way to protect their rights or do not trust local officials. This is perhaps why some local officials are particularly unwelcoming towards petitioning. In some places, local officials even take repressive measures against petitioners, mobilizing public power to strike back against petitioners on all sorts of pretexts in an effort to “kill a chicken to warn the monkeys.”
Actually, it’s extremely unwise to try to eliminate petitioning through repression. Repression carries extremely high costs. Whether it’s enacting all sorts of rules against petitioners so that they will be punished at the slightest move or tracking and intercepting petitioners … all of these require huge investments of human and material resources. Moreover, even if these prevention measures are stronger, it’s hard to avoid loopholes. One ought to realize that if ordinary people have grievances, there must be some way to resolve them. Either officials keep rights-protection channels open in the localities they govern so that ordinary people’s rights get sufficient relief, or ordinary people will petition—petitioning is a good thing, because it shows that [people] believe in the government and believe in the ability of the vertical oversight system to resolve problems.
Different attitudes toward petitioning will result in different outcomes. Being generous like the premier and showing a bit more tolerance, more understanding, and, when possible, more patience will not only help to resolve conflicts in a timely manner and preserve social harmony but also help to garner positive credibility and win the respect and trust of average people. [Acting] conversely may add insult to injury, allowing the situation to continue to get worse, and as was the case among some people in Yiliang County, infringing upon the rights and interests of petitioners will only make one more reactive.
The Zhaotong Public Security Bureau’s revocation of the administrative detention order against Liang Yonglan and the Yiliang County Public Security Bureau’s personal apology have already rejected the methods earlier applied by certain people. This acknowledgement of fault and willingness to change has earned much praise. But a more ideal situation would be to avoid making mistakes as much as possible, especially mistakes that could have been avoided in the first place.