Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Dangerous Petition

China: Petitions and the Party Congress
Stratfor: October 10, 2007

China: Petitions and the Party Congress
October 10, 2007 22 25 GMT


Two petitions calling for political reform, each with more than 10,000 signatories, were sent to the Beijing government Oct. 8. Beijing's response to the petitions, which came just a week before the Communist Party of China convenes for its 17th Party Congress, was subdued because it was not caught by surprise. However, the overall petition system can be expected to fall in the spotlight at next week's Party Congress.


Two petitions, each signed by more than 10,000 Chinese, were sent to the Beijing government Oct. 8, just a week before the Communist Party of China convenes for its 17th Party Congress. One petition demanded political reform, the other a political spring-cleaning to address government corruption.

Pockets of social unrest exist across China in disparate regions. Beijing's nightmare scenario involves these pockets linking up across provinces and towns, forming a critical mass that could directly undermine central government authority. A petition from multiple townships and provinces targeting the central government seems like it should have been cause for alarm. Beijing's subdued response indicates the petitions did not catch it by surprise; in fact, the Chinese government is fully aware of such petition drives, which will come under scrutiny at the upcoming Party Congress.

The Chinese administrative petition system for addressing public grievances is centuries-old. The modern version has evolved into one in which taking complaints straight to the top (i.e., Beijing) is seen as the most effective option. Thus, groups of disaffected Chinese scattered across the country, both rural and urban dwellers, send their complaints and petitions via representatives to Beijing on a daily basis. One prominent grassroots activist entity supports 10 to 15 petitions involving tens of thousands of signatories and close to 1,000 smaller ones involving thousands of signatories each year.

In the years following China's economic takeoff, Beijing increasingly has struggled to cope with the swelling number of incoming petition couriers and to keep tabs on where in the country unrest is fermenting. In recent years, Beijing has attempted to use local media to harness and direct public anger over perceived social injustices toward local officials. But that method is only effective for tackling scattered pockets of social unrest in which the potential for a protest to escalate into a nationwide movement is minimal, such as a protest over an illegal landgrab by a local official. For petitions reaching across dozens of provinces, addressing the problem is much harder and the stakes are much higher.

To address this larger problem, Beijing is learning to use the activists to control and monitor the masses. Grassroots organizations in China essentially act as portals, disseminating information to and collecting information from millions of disaffected Chinese citizens -- first via their Web sites and second by touching base with representatives sent by various provinces or citizens to Beijing as petition couriers. While these entities do not directly coordinate such petitions, their implicit support and provision of a virtual meeting point, such as their Web site, offer an invaluable tool for activists seeking to coordinate nationwide petitions. Organizers of large petitions generate broader support by making contact with people who traveled from around the country to Beijing with their separate petitions. The organizers then disseminate news of the latest nationwide petition through the visitors.

These organizations operate overtly, welcoming attention from any quarter. The more attention they get for their cause, the better. Significantly, the grassroots groups offer a sort of portal to petition action not only for activists but for Beijing as well. According to one grassroots activist source, the groups grant interviews freely, with the state-run Xinhua news agency being the most active interviewer of all.

Engaging with these grassroots organizations on a near-daily basis, Beijing acquires intelligence on how and where unrest is brewing. Theoretically, this allows it to remain a step ahead of petitions before they arrive on the government's doorstep. Allowing these organizations to remain open also lets off steam from China's pressure cooker of social unrest, giving Chinese citizens a sense of empowerment thanks to their ability to leapfrog over the heads of corrupt local government officials.

As long as these petitions do not go beyond angry citizens signing a document, Beijing can tolerate these organizations and use them as a tool for monitoring and managing public grievances and for keeping the lid on the social unrest pressure cooker. The risk for Beijing lies in the possibility that these organizations may one day evolve into cross-national portals for coordinating protesters -- as opposed to petitions -- across cities and provinces, directly challenging the government's authority and control.

To forestall this possibility, Beijing tries to keep these organizations in line by selectively imprisoning volunteers for a couple of years every so often, prompting most volunteers to maintain a low profile. But information technology is hard to control. Beijing also faces the risk that another interest group opposed to the Chinese government, like Falun Gong, could tap into these networks of disparate activists.

Allowing grassroots activist portals to be strong enough to serve as a tool for Beijing, but not so strong that they become a threat, constitutes a fine line for Beijing to walk. The portals themselves, for the most part, toe the line today in the hope of pushing the boundaries tomorrow. Many of them believe the Chinese public is finally coming to grips with the concept of human rights. But if their numbers grow along with flare-ups of social unrest, so will the social momentum for change.

Beijing's options for dealing with such social unrest are severely limited. But seeking to create a safe outlet for social unrest by not eliminating grassroots activist organizations that do not push too far is a high-risk strategy. Expect this strategy and the wider administrative petition system to be under the spotlight at next week's Party Congress.

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