Saturday, April 18, 2009

Article - Meet-the-People sessions in China

Officials must meet residents to hear grievances to maintain social stability

By Peh Shing Huei- ST April 18, 2009

“They hope that people will reason that, with things projected to get better, they should not bother to rebel.”

June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science and a leading China scholar, on regular Meet-the-People sessions in which city leaders in China will now meet residents to hear their grievances. The meetings, some analysts say, are meant to defuse tensions ahead of sensitive anniversaries like the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4 and the 60th national day of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.

BEIJING: They may not be held in a void deck setting, but China will soon have its own regular Meet-the-People sessions too.

Just like Singapore politicians, Chinese officials will now have to meet their residents and hear their grievances.

In a ruling announced this week, the State Council - China's Cabinet - ordered city leaders to meet their residents once a quarter and county officials to do likewise once a month.

While Chinese officials have been known to hold such meetings on a wildly ad hoc manner in the past decade, this is believed to be the first time the central government has decreed them to be a regular affair.

The move, said analysts, is to defuse tensions ahead of sensitive anniversaries like the Tiananmen incident on June 4 and the 60th national day of the People's Republic of China on Oct 1.

'They hope that people will reason that, with things projected to get better, they should not bother to rebel,' said veteran China scholar June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami.

The Meet-the-People sessions here are referred to as 'jie fang', or 'to receive petitioners', a reference to ordinary people who seek out authorities to raise formal grievances.

Local officials were told by the State Council to 'warmly receive the people, patiently listen to their appeals with compassion and responsibility and make greater effort to solve their problems'.

The aim is for lower officials to solve the problems so that the petitioners would not need to follow a centuries-old system of seeking justice with provincial or even national leaders.

The petitioning system dates back to imperial times, when people travelled for thousands of kilometres to the capital, in the hope that the ultimate arbiter, the emperor, will rule in their favour.

The practice has not changed much. Many ordinary Chinese still travel to Beijing in the hope that the central government can rescue them from the injustices of local authorities.

Madam Zhong Yafang, 42, for example, had come to Beijing from eastern Hangzhou city before the start of the Chinese parliamentary sessions last month, hoping to petition the country's top leaders on the wrong medical treatment she received.

She had told The Straits Times: 'I have confidence in the central government. As long as (Premier) Wen Jiabao or (President) Hu Jintao learn about it, they will not leave it unsolved.'

But petitioners like her were portrayed negatively lately when Peking University professor Sun Dongdong commented last month that 99 per cent of these people were mentally ill.

State media quickly lambasted his comments, calling them reckless and irresponsible. Hundreds of petitioners protested outside the university despite his subsequent apology.

'Notwithstanding the views of one Beida (Beijing University) academic, the government realises that petitioning is key to maintaining social stability during a period of heightened economic stress,' said political analyst Lawrence Reardon from the University of New Hamsphire, who called the practice a unique form of Chinese 'democracy'.

Having a dedicated human face to meet these petitioners personally would be useful, said observers.

But as Prof Dreyer said, it is only effective if those officials are able to solve the problems. Otherwise, their hopefulness can quickly turn into anger.

Now, officials are known better for blocking petitioners from complaining to the higher authorities, expending significant resources to track them down in Beijing and abduct them back to their hometowns.

Some even go as far as sending petitioners to mental hospitals, forcing them to put in writing that they will never again approach the higher authorities, before they are released.

Such abuses in the petitioning system have led some scholars to want it terminated, and calls for greater effort to establish a just and independent legal system.

But such a move is unlikely in the short term, meaning that the government will try to further refine, and improve, the petitioning system.

'The leadership's problem here is how to modulate the petition system, so that it doesn't encourage overwhelming numbers of people to present petitions but does satisfy enough people with grievances that the party and government are serious about trying to solve their problems,' said Prof Dreyer.

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