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"Listen To The Masses" - Xi Jinping Wants Chinese Government To Take Citizens' Petitions Seriously

Mao Zedong once said that Communist cadres "must be models in applying the Party's democratic centralism, must master the method of leadership based on the principle of 'from the masses, to the masses', and must cultivate a democratic style and be good at listening to the masses". 

"Listening to the masses" - whatever this may mean - has become a common catchphrase of Xi Jinping's new vision for China's Communism. In perfect Maoist rhetorical style, Xi coats his ideology in vague high-sounding phrases, a vagueness that suits a Party leader who doesn't have to engage in debates with opponents and who needs ideological ambiguity in order to rule. Xi's last attempt at reviving the old Maoist principle of "listening to the masses" is the strengthening of Communist China's system of popular petitions, the so-called xinfang (信访). 

The xinfang system dates back to 1951, when the Government Administration Council issued a "Decision regarding the handling of citizen's letters and visits" (关于处理人民来信和接见人民工作的决定). Building upon the premise that the "people's government at every level belongs to the people themselves", the document stated that every county and city government and all governments above the county and city level had to establish reception offices or complaint departments to handle citizens' complaints (see also Yongshun Cai: Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail, 2010, p. 22). 

As scholars have pointed out, the xinfang system is a paradoxical institution for several reasons. First, it is a way for citizens to lodge complaints to the authorities when they feel that the judicial system has failed them; it is thus an implicit acknowledgment that the judicial system does not deliver justice. Second, it is a method by which the judicial system is sidestepped, and therefore it weakens the judiciary, whose legitimacy and efficacy already suffer from corruption and government meddling. Third, the xinfang system is a vestige of China's imperial past, since it continues the old practice of people petitioning government officials instead of relying on proper and transparent judicial procedures (see: Yuchao Zhu: Deviation in Legal Practice: Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics, in: Modern Chinese Legal Reform: New Perspectives, ed. Qiang Fang and Xiaobing Li, 2013, pp. 64-67). 

For these reasons, the xinfang system is a highly ineffective and contradictory institution which has so far not been able to meet citizens' demands for justice. In 2003, for instance, only 0.2% of petitioners' cases were settled (ibid., p. 67). The cause for this inefficacy is obviously the fact that the People's Republic of China lacks an independent supervisory body. The Party must supervise itself.

Nevertheless, on April 21 Xi Jinping instructed government authorities at all levels to "solve issues emerging from petitions and settle the reasonable and lawful demands of the masses", stressing that petitions promote "the interest of the masses, social harmony and stability" (群众切身利益,事关社会和谐稳定). 

One can only guess whether Xi truly believes in the xinfang system as a way to redress wrongs done to the people by the government. "Real Communism" is in fact often very different from the ideals it professes. The difficulties faced by citizens who want to seek justice are illustrated by the following case (quoted from Cai 2012, pp. 95-97, my emphasis): 

Since the late 1980s, the Shanghai government has made unprecedented efforts to solve its well-known housing shortage by building a large number of new neighborhoods in the countryside. BG is one such neighborhood, built in the early 1990s and designed to house 21,000 residents. It consists of four subneighborhoods, two in the south and two in the north. The southern half contains dozens of six-story buildings surrounded by bamboo, while in north BG, in addition to some six-story buildings, there are twelve twenty-six-story buildings surrounded by approximately 8,000 square meters of open ground. The open area was designated as a greenbelt by the city urban planning bureau. Because of its beautiful environment, more and more people moved to BG from downtown Shanghai. BG residents were proud of their neighborhood because it was named a "Civil Residential Neighborhood" by the central authority in 1993. 
The life of BG residents was disrupted over discussions about the 8,000-square-meter open area. Although BG is far from downtown, the expansion of the city increased the value of the land on which it is situated. As a result, both real estate companies and the district government coveted the open area, and protecting the greenbelt became a constant problem for residents. From 1993 to 2001, residents in BG engaged in a nine-year collective action to protect the open area under the coordination and leadership of two leaders from their community ...
In September 1993, the real estate company that developed BG was preparing to build a twenty-six-story building on the 8,000 square meters of open ground. Fang, a retired teacher living in one of the two subneighborhoods (Neighborhood A) of north BG, initiated resistance to the plans. The reason for Fang's resistance was simple: If a new building were built, her fifth floor apartment would see little sunshine. Fang first approached the residents' committee of her subneighborhood, hoping that the committee would report the problem to the X Street Office. Because the real estate company was owned by the city government, however, the office refused to help. 
Fang decided to present petitions to the next upper-level district government. As individual petitions may be ignored, Fang planned to mobilize more participants to present a collective petition. She then tried to contact the heads of residents' groups, as they were familiar with the households in their groups and could mobilize participants. She began by visiting the group heads in the two subneighborhoods of north BG. However, those heads and many residents did not know her and were suspicious of her motives. Fang had to convince them that she needed their participation because a collective petition would be more effective. She assured them that she would take the lead in presenting the petition and take the risk. 
Fang's insistence and residents' worry about the construction of a new building finally convinced some to participate. One day in September 1993, Fang led about forty residents to present a petition against the proposed construction to the district government, but they were barred from entering the office yard. It was not until Fang happened to see one of her former students, a high-ranking official in the district government, that they were allowed to present the petition. A leader of the district government ordered the estate company to stop construction, but the company ignored the government's order and continued construction. Fang then organized a petition to the city people's congress. A leader in the congress ordered the district government to investigate the issue, claiming that resident resistance might cause social disruption. As a result of the pressure from both the district government and the city people's congress, the real estate company had to address residents' concerns. 
The company believed that, because it was a state firm, the district government and the city's people's congress would turn a blind eye to its illegal occupation of the open ground if it could manage to silence the residents. It first presented a fake construction plan to convince the district government that its construction project was legal. It then proceeded to discredit Fang in the BG community. In early 1994, the company conducted discreet negotiations with Fang, promising to provide her with a new apartment elsewhere if she stopped organizing resistance, thereby undermining her determination. The company then leaked news of the negotiations to the community. The residents felt betrayed, and their trust in Fang evaporated. Having discovered the trap, Fang tried to clear her name and organize another collective action but failed.

Although the construction of the building was eventually stopped after a new neighbourhood leader replaced Fang, this episode highlights the inherent problems of the xinfang system. Presenting a petition involves a high level of personal risk, because it is a challenge to the government and possibly to powerful officials or firms. As in the case of Fang, citizens may end up being discredited and suffering on a personal level without being able to find support in the judicial system or in a free media environment. 


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