National Authorities Take Incremental Steps Toward Reform of Petitioning System

February 11, 2005

Several Chinese media sources have carried reports and commentary on the State Council's January decision to approve revised Xinfang Regulations. The revised regulations are designed to address recent criticism and discussion of the "letters and visits" system.

As noted in the Commission's 2004 Annual Report Access to Justice section, the xinfang system is an extra-legal system of appeal that Chinese citizens commonly use to bring grievances to the attention of high-level leaders. Use of xinfang frequently results in significant human rights and rule-of-law problems, such as reprisals against individual petitioners and government sweeps of petitioner camps in Beijing. In addition, xinfang appeals frequently serve as a dysfunctional alternative to the formal legal system.

The revisions to the national regulations do not substantially alter their content. Xinfang bureaus remain the designated locus for a wide range of quasi-legal complaints and requests. Chinese media reports note that government authorities rejected divergent calls to strengthen or to weaken xinfang institutions. The revised regulations attempt, however, to regularize and streamline the use of the xinfang system, incrementally bringing it into accordance with formal legal norms.