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I. Summary

Two people died already in the past year––we don’t dare say how, but they were both petitioners….We can be arrested at any time, and we can disappear at any time.
Ai, a petitioner in Beijing

China’s petitioning system is a unique cultural and legal tradition with deep historical roots. Although it has taken different forms over the centuries, it dates to the beginnings of the Chinese empire. Early Confucian texts refer to commoners submitting memorials to the emperor about their complaints. In China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), petitioners traveled to Beijing and sometimes waited outside the gates of the emperor’s palace on their knees, or tried to intercept imperial processions, to present their appeals.1

Today, their descendants stage sit-ins in front of Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound where China’s leaders live and work, and try to push their petitions into their limousines. Thousands of others throng Beijing’s streets in front of national petitions offices, holding up signs that describe their cases. Their numbers swell during major political conventions. These petitioners, many of them rural people with minimal education or resources, often come to Beijing fleeing local violence and seeking the venue of last resort.

This report is the first in-depth look at what happens to petitioners who attempt to find redress for grievances within China's petitioning system. Research was carried out in China. The stories of abuse we heard––and which we report in the words of petitioners themselves––were chilling, and confirm anecdotal accounts previously published. These abuses call for urgent measures to protect petitioners from systematic violence and ill-treatment.

The words most commonly translated as “petition” are xinfang (信访), literally “letters and visits,” or shangfang (上访), “visiting higher [authorities].” Under the petitioning system, citizens unsatisfied with the decisions handed down by local officials or local courts may write letters of complaint or appear in person at special petition bureaus throughout the country. If petitioners are unsatisfied with the response to a petition they have the right to continue up the chain of petition bureaus all the way from the village level to the township, county, provincial, and national levels.

It is estimated that a staggering ten million petitions were filed in 2004.2 According to the People’s Daily, “An official survey revealed that 40 percent of these complaints are about police, courts and prosecutors’ offices, 33 percent about government, 13 percent about corruption and 11 percent about injustice.”3  Other specific subjects often named in petitions include environmental problems, workplace complaints, and forced evictions.

Most petitions are filed at the local level, but frustration with the lack of action has led to a dramatic increase in the number of appeals to Beijing and in the number of cases filed directly with national instead of local petitions offices. According to official statistics, in the first quarter of 2005, the number of petition cases submitted in writing to the State Council Petitions Bureau in Beijing increased 99.4 percent, and the number of visitors to the bureau increased 94.9 percent, compared to letters and visits during the same period in 2004.4 In 2003, the State Bureau of Letters and Visits received 14 percent more petitions than in 2002.5

In principle, petitioning is encouraged by the government and Party. The right to petition is guaranteed under Chinese law and by the constitution6, reflecting the historical role that petitioning has played in Chinese governance. With few other channels to raise grievances, and without a free press or the right to freedom of association or assembly, the petitioning system acts as a necessary pressure release valve for a government and Party that, in a political system lacking accountability to its own citizens, often finds itself out of touch with ground realities or the views of ordinary people. The petitioning system can therefore be an asset, bringing problem areas, such as corruption, to the attention of senior officials before they create mass dissatisfaction with the political system.

Yet the government and Party display a highly contradictory and inconsistent attitude towards petitioners. While in some cases national authorities encourage local authorities to resolve a petitioner’s problems, if for no other reason than to prevent petitioners from clogging Beijing’s streets, such success carries its own risks, as the very officials ordered to “resolve” these cases may be the same people who committed the original abuses.

In reality, success for petitioners is quite rare. A 2004 study by a Chinese professor, Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, found that of the two thousand petitioners surveyed, only three had their problems resolved.7 Only two out of a thousand petitioners who take their cases to national-level petitioning offices ever receive a written response.8 Problems occur at all levels of the petitioning system––village, township, county, provincial, and national. In a one-party state, such an exceedingly low rate of success or response has political implications, raising questions about whether the system is intended to redress grievances or simply create the appearance that it is possible to challenge officialdom.

However, the worst aspect of the system is the retaliation that many petitioners experience. Petitioners are often beaten, intimidated, and even kidnapped for airing their grievances. Professor Yu’s report states that over 50 percent of respondents reported that they had been beaten by state actors or agents.9 The report noted:

It is publicly known that some local governments use violence to stop petitioners from making their case to central government departments. The retaliation by some local governments against the petitioners is appalling and outrageous.10

Indeed, petitioners told Human Rights Watch that while they wait for their petitions to be addressed, many are ambushed by groups of plainclothes security officers on the street, beaten, kidnapped, and taken back to their home provinces, where some are imprisoned and even tortured. A few petitioners who spoke to Human Rights Watch had lost the use of limbs due to torture in detention (but said that they intended to continue petitioning nonetheless). The perpetrators of these abuses are usually state actors or agents. They are rarely disciplined; Human Rights Watch knows of no successful prosecutions.

Our research found that much of the violence and abuse against petitioners in Beijing emanates from efforts by local officials to stop local residents from going to Beijing to petition. To accomplish this, local officials often send shadowy “retrievers” (jiefang renyuan)––plain-clothes security officers––who attack and intimidate petitioners to deter them from pursuing their claims and force them to return to their home province. Beijing police, in turn, play their part: to quell the threat of rising discontent, they raze the shantytowns where petitioners live in Beijing, round up petitioners by the thousands, and turn many of them over to the retrievers, turning a blind eye to the retaliatory violence.

This is especially likely to take place during major political meetings, a time when petitioners flood Beijing in an attempt to seek help from powerful senior officials, and a time when the city is under greater pressure to put forward a positive public image. For example, during the “Two Meetings”(liang hui) in 2005, the spring meetings of China’s National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, Beijing police issued statements that stability was a priority and that local governments should see to it that petitioning problems were resolved at the local level and that petitioning in Beijing was kept to a minimum.11 Subsequently, Beijing police rounded up several thousand petitioners, detaining them in the basement of a gymnasium.12 Such practices raise concerns that similar “sweeps” may take place in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

Once handed over to the retrievers, petitioners are forcibly returned to their home provinces. As many petitioners go to Beijing because of complaints of official or police violence, sending them back to the provinces often exposes them to grave dangers. While most petitioners are released in their hometowns and simply board the next bus back to Beijing, some are imprisoned without charges, or are sentenced to reeducation through labor camps. In prison and in the reeducation camps, some petitioners say they have been tortured. Falungong practitioners appear to be singled out for frequent arrest and harsh treatment.

Local authorities, who face criticism from superiors if too many petitioners go to Beijing, often see petitioners as a serious threat. Petitioners draw negative attention to the home province. Worse, petitioners are a threat to the financial wellbeing of local officials, as their pay includes incentives tied to indicators of social stability, such as the number of petitions received at national government offices. Large numbers of petitions results in cadres receiving lower annual or quarterly bonuses, or no bonuses at all, giving these officials a direct financial incentive to keep petitioners away from Beijing.

Despite severe retaliation, or perhaps because of it, many petitioners are tenacious in pursuit of their claims, pursuing their cases through every available channel for many years. Some spend years, even decades, in Beijing. A few families have become petitioning dynasties, passing the torch from one generation to the next. Some spend their life savings in the petitioning system, sinking deeper into poverty until they become homeless. Abuses tend to accumulate quickly on those persistent enough to challenge the state.

“Farmers might not have any education or understand anything about the legal system,” says a Chinese lawyer familiar with many cases:

They just know this: they can petition….The petitioning system shows a deep concern with fairness in Chinese society, a deep-rooted belief in Chinese culture that if you speak reasonably, you will get a good result.13

Petitioners’ problems are often compounded by official prejudice and discrimination. They are commonly seen as “country bumpkins,” uneducated peasants who don't have access to mainstream mechanisms of dispute resolution. While the exact impact these attitudes have on the outcomes of petitions is difficult to measure, these prejudices are so widespread and pervasive that they must be considered in any assessment of the petitioning process.

The lack of effective remedies elsewhere in the Chinese justice system has driven large numbers of rural and impoverished urban residents to Beijing to seek redress. Those interviewed for this report were among the minority who were not discouraged by violence, inaction, or retaliation and continued to pursue their cases. Beatings and threats lead many others to drop their cases and return home. Many more people likely decide against complaining in the first place because of the lack of an independent judiciary, the lack of confidentiality, and the high risk of retaliation, which combine to create a climate of fear.

For some who fled their home provinces to avoid retaliation by local officials or police, it is impossible to return, and China’s restrictive household registration laws mean that many petitioners cannot move to new towns to start again. Instead, they live in a permanent limbo, waiting for a reply from the state that will enable them to return home and pick up their lives again. Thousands of petitioners live in a “petitioners’ village” near Beijing’s South Station, surviving on scraps picked up on the street. Their numbers include some children. In winter, some die of exposure.

In response to the growing numbers of petitioners, Chinese activists have begun to organize mass protests in Beijing and to try to establish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to assist them. In January, Zhou Zhanshun, the head of China’s main petitions office, the State Bureau of Letters and Visits, admitted that “civic protests were on the rise” and expressed “concerns that angry citizens were increasingly organized across regions and industries” and that demonstrations were growing in size.14 The response has been harsh. An appendix to this report lists sixteen activists who have been imprisoned or who have disappeared as a result of their advocacy for petitioners. Several have been imprisoned after filing applications for permits to hold legal demonstrations. NGOs report harassment.

Senior Chinese officials are aware of the problems with the petitioning system. There have been some attempts to address them, if only to head off rising public discontent with China’s unresponsive political system. After Professor Yu’s findings were made public, foreign and Chinese news sources began publishing articles detailing the system’s shortcomings and the abysmal conditions in the petitioners’ village.15 The People’s Daily admitted that some “high-profile areas where the central organs of power” are located often “receive hundreds of petitioners each day.”16 Soon after, officials of the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council and the State Bureau for Letters and Calls “acknowledged that problems exist in the current work of handling petitions, such as inadequate channels, lack of supervision, and [irresponsible] officials.”17 The Anhui Province Public Security Chief, Cui Yadong, commented:

I felt ashamed when the petitioners [thanked] me, because most of their problems could have been solved earlier if our police staff had paid enough attention.18

In response to this flurry of criticism, the government issued new regulations that went into effect on May 1, 2005. These have been promoted around the country and internationally as strengthening the petitioning system and providing new protections for the rights of petitioners. They include a few new provisions, such as requiring that a petitioner first exhaust options at the local petitioning bureau before appealing to the next level of government authority, but they fail to address the dilemma that petitioners face in having to appeal for relief to the very government organs responsible for the initial violation.

As part of a national campaign launched after the implementation of the May 2005 regulations, Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang ordered local police to address complaints by petitioners. A month after the campaign was launched, the ministry reported that 71.7 percent of complaints had been resolved.19 This is not a credible assertion. It is either intentionally misleading, using an ambiguous term such as “resolved”––which doesn’t mean that valid claims were accepted––or simply a piece of official propaganda.

In any case, the problems of retaliation documented in this report are unlikely to be addressed in a meaningful way by this campaign; in practice, they may actually be exacerbated by additional pressure on local officials and police to “resolve” complaints against them. In August 2005, the State Bureau for Letters and Visits warned against “unreasonable demands” by petitioners, an indication that the state remains at least as concerned with maintaining control over the number of petitioners and, hence, social order, as with ensuring fairness and justice for petitioners.20

Reports from petitioners and their advocates indicate that in the weeks before the May 1 regulations went into effect, police launched a crackdown on petitioners aimed at driving them out of Beijing. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch after May 1 also said that the retrievers, while retreating across the street from Beijing petitions offices, continued to lie in wait for petitioners. Petitioners say that Beijing police are not implementing provisions of the regulations aimed at ending violence against petitioners and putting retrievers out of business. Police often ignore emergency (“110”) calls by petitioners. Instead, they often appear determined to chase petitioners out of Beijing. In doing so, they often send petitioners back to the very same officials who, were the source of the original complaints. Thus the reforms, combined with the crackdown on petitioners who do make it to Beijing, have given the system a nightmarish circularity in which the state response to petitioners also gives rise to more abuses about which to petition.

The new regulations also fail to address crucial systemic problems, such as the generally acknowledged fact that, even in the tiny minority of cases in which petitioners receive an official letter in response, these letters have no actual power to compel action.

The system clearly needs substantial reform. The imperial appeals system, reestablished by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s, has been codified in national, provincial and metropolitan regulations. It has since ballooned into a massive bureaucratic system that encompasses petitions offices for a number of government agencies at every level of the country. While the system has grown, it has not kept pace with the demand. Jurisdictional lines are unclear, so that many petitioners pursue the same case in multiple complaint procedures at once.

Like all states, China is obligated to provide routes to redress for abuses of human rights. Under international law, all persons have the right to a remedy when their basic rights are violated. Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but has not ratified, states that states party to the covenant undertake:

    a) To ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity;

    b) To ensure that any person claiming such a remedy shall have his right thereto determined by competent judicial, administrative or legislative authorities, or by any other competent authority provided for by the legal system of the State, and to develop the possibilities of judicial remedy;

    c) To ensure that the competent authorities shall enforce such remedies when granted.21

However, these obligations are not being met. As a modern system of redress, the petitioning system has failed in part because it does not have the necessary elements of independence, impartiality, competence, transparency, professionalism, and non-discrimination to make it function fairly. At present there are no publicly established criteria upon which decisions are made, no system of publishing decisions with legally sound explanations, and no independent bodies to review the decisions of civil servants. In short, fairness is not built into the system.

There are also severe structural problems. The relationship with the administrative law system and the court system is confused and, indeed, circular. Petitions may be made to the courts against adverse executive branch decisions; they may also be made to the executive branch against adverse court decisions (thereby vitiating the principle of independence of the judiciary). It is not even clear what decisions the system can make, and whether the decisions by petitions offices are final or binding.

There is a raging debate in China about whether to keep or abolish the system. Abolitionists argue that the system is inherently arbitrary and at odds with the protection of human rights and the rule of law. Others suggest it should be overhauled but remain in place, as petitioning offers average Chinese perhaps the only legally condoned avenue to raise what, in many cases, are essentially political grievances. Those who support the current system should realize that the longer that abuse and lack of fairness remain the salient characteristics of the system, the more likely it will be that abolitionists will ultimately win the argument.  


The Chinese government and the CCP should act immediately to end the violence, kidnapping, and intimidation of petitioners. The place to start is to put retrievers out of business. The May 1, 2005 regulations have been ineffective in limiting abuses by retrievers, as can be seen in photos taken by Human Rights Watch (on page 44 of this report) of retrievers waiting across the street from petitioning offices in Beijing after May 1, waiting to pounce on petitioners. Chinese authorities know who the retrievers are; most are state employees, such as police officers, or are commissioned by state officials. 

The government and Party must send instructions to all local authorities that the practice of sending retrievers to Beijing is prohibited and make it clear that individuals who persist in hiring retrievers will also be held accountable under the criminal law. The criminal law prohibits the violence, kidnapping, and threats used by retrievers. The police and prosecutors should apply this law in a public and highly visible way to send the message that this practice will not be tolerated in a country that claims to be moving towards the rule of law. The government must investigate the use of police and other agents of the state who beat, threaten, and kidnap petitioners and take appropriate criminal and disciplinary measures against those who carry out these abuses and the officials who order them or turn a blind eye to these methods.

The Chinese government also must insist the Beijing police officers protect the public––including petitioners––from violence and kidnapping that occurs literally in their sight. Instead of responding to protect petitioners, police often look the other way when local thugs come up from the provinces. Police officers should have the confidence that acting to protect members of the public, even when intervening against retrievers employed by powerful government or Party officials, will not lead to retaliation against them within the police service. Instead, they should be trained to understand that the failure to intervene is a dereliction of duty that will lead to sanctions.

The Chinese government should act immediately to release from all forms of detention all petitioners detained in retaliation for exercising their legal right to petition. It should release all petitioner activists imprisoned detained for protesting and for applying for permits to hold legal demonstrations.

The Chinese government should also change the current incentive system for officials working in the petitioning system. One reason why retrievers are so prevalent and so zealous is the current incentive system that rewards officials for keeping the number of petitions down. The system should be turned on its head, with incentives based on the fair and expeditious resolution of legitimate complaints as a sign of a willingness to accept the need for an appeals process and a more open political system. Further, national authorities should make it clear to local officials that the presence of retrievers in Beijing is evidence of an undesirable and inadequate response to appeals and will negatively affect the responsible officials.

Corruption also has to be addressed––not just the corruption that often leads to a petition being filed in the first place, but the corruption within administrative and judicial structures that often makes it impossible for petitioners with legitimate complaints to gain redress.

The May 1 regulations have not made the petitioning system fair, impartial, and effective. It is unclear if the weaknesses in the regulations represent a technical failure that can be addressed through expert advice or if ambiguity was deliberately written into the new regulations. In either case, a decision to redraft the regulations or to create new legislation should entail a more open process that allows for public input and comment and incorporates more perspectives, including those of petitioners.

Petitions offices in Beijing are chaotic. For the system to be functional, it is important to increase the number and quality of staff in petitioning offices. Even well-intentioned staff are often overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to process, as a single petition can run up to a hundred pages or more, handwritten by lay-people with the issues often jumbled up without context. 

The government should also attempt to make legal aid available to those who cannot afford a lawyer. The many legal aid initiatives around China, often funded by international donors, should take into account the acute needs of petitioners for help in presenting their claims in the petitioning system, in the administrative law system, or in courts. 

China should also change current rules and allow petitioners in Beijing to work while in Beijing. The government should offer social services to allow petitioners basic human dignity and the necessities of survival while they pursue their claims.

To increase the public’s faith in having their grievances resolved fairly, the government needs to strengthen its administrative law mechanisms and the court system, particularly at the provincial and local level. In this way meritorious claims could be resolved through administrative law or judicial processes. For some petitioners, at least, this will save time and money and bring finality to their cases. But for these reforms to be meaningful, the administrative law system and the courts must develop some core values––independence, impartiality, competence, transparency, professionalism, and non-discrimination––to make them function fairly and effectively.

While other countries with courts and administrative law systems that operate consistent with international standards can offer valuable technical assistance, no serious progress will be possible without fundamental reform. The creation of an independent judiciary, which involves separating the state from the Party, is a political decision that has to be taken at the highest levels of the government and Party. Local and national governance structures have to be radically changed to allow for popular participation and public accountability. Perhaps most important for petitioners, China has to establish systems to provide for genuine grass-roots accountability to communities and citizens. Unfortunately, there are no signs yet that the Chinese leadership is ready to accept the need for such basic reforms.

China and some of the more optimistic members of the international community have hailed China’s stated commitment to protecting human rights and creating the rule of law as a sign of the country’s development and modernization. But implementation is the real test. An end to abuses against petitioners should be seen inside China and by the international community as an indicator of the seriousness of China’s commitment.

[1] Jonathan K. Ocko, “I’ll take it all the way to Beijing: Capital appeals in the Qing,” Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 47.2 (May 1988), p. 294.

[2] Josephine Ma, “Petition reforms a bid to ease social tensions,” South China Morning Post, November 17, 2004. Many petitioners submit complaints to multiple offices at multiple levels of the system, so numbers of individual cases are likely fewer; however, many petitioners also submit complaints on behalf of large groups.

[3] People’s Daily, January 6, 2005, at

[4] Josephine Ma, “Petitioners losing faith, report warns,” South China Morning Post, November 19, 2004.

[5] Yu Jianrong, "Xinfang Zhidu Pipan (Critique of the Petition System)" December 5, 2004 [online], (retrieved July 10, 2005).

[6] Article 41 of the constitution states, “Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary. Citizens have the right to make to relevant state organs complaints and charges against, or exposures of, violation of the law or dereliction of duty by any state organ or functionary; but fabrication or distortion of facts with the intention of libel or frame-up is prohibited. In case of complaints, charges or exposures made by citizens, the state organ concerned must deal with them in a responsible manner after ascertaining the facts. No one may suppress such complaints, charges and exposures, or retaliate against the citizens making them. Citizens who have suffered losses through infringement of their civil rights by any state organ or functionary have the right to compensation in accordance with the law.

[7] Irene Wang, “Petition offices told to act faster,” South China Morning Post, January 18, 2005.

[8] Ma, “Petition reforms a bid to ease social tensions,” South China Morning Post.

[9] Jianrong, "Xinfang Zhidu Pipan (Critique of the Petition System)."

[10] Ibid. See also Ma, “Petition reforms a bid to ease social tensions,” South China Morning Post.

[11] “Zhonggong lianghui qi, Beijing yanqi shangfang shensu qingyuan (During Central government Two Meetings period, Beijing severely forbids petitioning and appealing),” Dajiyuan, March 20, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 26, 2005); “Lianghui zai ji, Beijing jiaqiang xinfang cuoshi” (As Two Meetings near, Beijing strengthens petitioning measures),, February 26, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 26, 2005).

[12] “Beijing police herd petitioners into camp-style detention,” Radio Free Asia, September 10, 2004 [online], (retrieved 28 November, 2005).

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Zhou, lawyer, Beijing, 2005.

[14]“New Petitioning Rules in Pipeline,” China Daily, January 15, 2004 [online], (retrieved November 28, 2005).

[15]For example: “Top Legislators Heed Concerns of Common Folks”, Xinhuanet, March 12, 2004 [online], (retrieved November 26, 2005) on the website of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China (; “Chinese Courts Report Increasing Number of Petitions in 2004”, People’s Daily, March 9, 2005 [online], http:// (retrieved November 24, 2005); “Right to appeal guaranteed”, People’s Daily, March 14, 2004 [online], (retrieved November 24, 2005); “国内首份信访报告获高层重视” (The First Domestic Report on Petitioning Receives High Level Attention), Nanfang Zhoumo, November 4, 2004 [online], (retrieved November 24, 2005).

[16] “New Petitioning Rules in Pipeline,” China Daily.

[17] China to better protect petitioners’ rights, People’s Daily Online, January 18, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 28, 2005).

[18] “All 3,000 police chiefs to hold face-to-face meetings with petitioners”, People’s Daily Online, May 19, 2005 [online], (retrieved November 28, 2005).

[19] “Police heads ordered to well handle petitioners,” People’s Daily, July 23, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 23, 2005).

[20] Vivien Cui, “Beijing warns against abusing petitioning system to disrupt social order,” South China Morning Post, August 1, 2005.

[21] Article 2(3), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), (1976).

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