On April 5, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a seminar featuring Prof. Yu Jianrong, a senior fellow at the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Carnegie Endowment China Program director and senior associate Minxin Pei moderated the discussion.

Prof. Yu is a leading public intellectual in China. His pioneering research on rising rural unrest and its institutional context has received widespread attention in China, including that of the highest leadership. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Fairbank Center of East Asian Research at Harvard University. His remarks are summarized below.

Social tensions in China have risen to record levels. Already this year, the number of petitioners to the central government has reached a new high. The Chinese courts and news media offer little public relief. Therefore, the administrative petition system has become one of the most critical institutional mechanisms for resolving state-society conflict in China.

Prof. Yu assessed the major flaws within China’s current petition system and their political consequences. First, the official petition system is swamped, unresponsive, irrational, and overly complex. Because the local bureaucracies fail to redress their grievances, aggrieved individuals have to seek intervention by the central government. This has led to an increasingly large number of petitions directed at the central government. However, only two in 1,000 petitions by person visits (and 3 in 10,000 petitions by letter or personal visits) actually result in some kind of resolution. The dysfunctional petition system has greatly amplified social discontent and thus damaged central authorities’ credibility. Second, the petition system is based on “ruled by man.” yet it is performing the functions that ought to belong to the courts, thereby also eroding the integrity of Chinese judiciary system. Third, the broken petition process has led to political persecution, radical reactions from the petitioners, and serious social conflict.

Prof. Yu further delineated various proposals of reforming China’s petition system. He pointed out that the failings of the petition system triggered an intense debate within China on how to conduct the reforms. The mainstream approach is to strengthen the system. It argues that China is not able to immediately abolish the petition system when its legal institutions are not yet in good shape. The bottom line is to build a more efficient petition and monitor system through new regulations, making the system a real political entity with greater power. The other approach, which Prof. Yu advocates, is to replace the current petition system by a formal judicial process.

A key to solving these problems, Prof. Yu continued, is to redefine the functions of the petition system. Its role as a channel for political participation needs to be strengthened, whereas its misplaced function as judicial relief is ought to be substituted by the legal system. Furthermore, an important step for the reforms is to shift petitions to People’s Congress at all levels, and supervise the petition process through People’s Congress. At the same time, China may encourage the formation of interest groups and social organizations to open more channels for expressing people’s grievances. Finally, it is critical to protect the legal rights of ordinary Chinese citizens and stop any political retaliation against petitioners from the authorities.   

When asked whether China’s immature legal system was ready to replace the petition system, Prof. Yu responded that the current legal system would work better than the petition system because it at least has formal rules and certain degrees of institutional transparency.   

Prof. Yu concluded his remarks by noting that the current regulation of the petition system (passed on January 5, 2005) has not resolved the problem but is likely to create new conflict. The thrust of this regulation is to restrain ordinary citizens’ access to the petition system, even though the new regulation also has progressive provisions on protecting petitioners from retaliation by local authorities. China should seek new reform measures, and ultimately, constitutional building is a political choice that China must make to realize the rule of law and maintain social stability.

Summary prepared by Yong Lu, Program Administrator with the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.