Chinese Petitioning System Offers a Dysfunctional Alternative to the Rule of Law

November 19, 2004

Two recent articles in Southern Weekend (1, 2) analyzed the Chinese xinfang (letters and visits) system. In addition, a recent Washington Post article provides English-language analysis. For more on the xinfang system, see the Access to Justice section of the CECC Annual Report.

Chinese citizens seeking to redress their grievances use the xinfang system as an alternative to the formal legal system. According to the reports, Chinese government agencies received over 10 million petitions last year, more than the 6 million cases handled by court system. The prevalence of petitioning reflects the internal defects of, and significant popular distrust in, the formal Chinese legal structure. In a survey of Beijing petitioners, two-thirds had previously sued in court, but only half of such cases were successful, and over half of petitioners surveyed indicated distrust of the legal system.

Petitioning appears to be increasing at higher levels of government. While the national xinfang bureau experienced a 14% increase in petitions, figures for local offices remained flat. A similar phenomenon is evident in national government bureaus as compared to their local counterparts.

Periodic police crackdowns on petitioners and other human rights abuses are common. Both a Boxun report and a Human Rights in China press release detail recent abuses.

Among the most serious flaws of the xinfang system is that xinfang bureaus frequently lack any authority to resolve petitions. According to one academic study, only 0.2% of petitions are in fact addressed. This fact has prompted some academics to call for the xinfang system to be abolished. However, as noted in an Asian Times article, abolishing the system could spark more uncontrolled forms of protest.

According to an article in the South China Morning Post, amendments to the 1995 national xinfang regulations are currently under consideration and are apparently aimed at making the petition system more transparent.