HONG KONG — For decades, China's capital has been the last resort for citizens whose grievances could not be solved through the legal system at the local level. But starting Thursday, legal reforms ban petitioners from taking their case to higher authorities, in a move that analysts say highlights the leadership's uneasiness with local grievances reaching the capital.
The new rules give local governments up to 60 days to answer petitions. Those whose issues are not resolved locally are banned from appealing to central authorities.
Policymakers in China said the move is part of a general reform to promote rule of law and efficiency at the local level.
But critics believe authorities have become wary of the potential instability that petitioners can bring to the capital when they visit to file complaints.
Huang Qi is a human rights activist from Sichuan province.
They are not looking for a way to handle these citizens' problems, he said. He believes the so called "reform of the petitioning system" is done only get rid of petitioners from Beijing and protect the interests of the central authorities.”
Analysts also see the reform as an admission of failure of the system.
Officially established in 1951, the petitioning system assures, on paper, that citizens can appeal to the central government when they perceive injustices in how their cases are handled locally.
But surveys have shown that resolving a grievance through the system is the exception, and most petitions are ignored.
Huang said petitioners come to Beijing because their cases involve local corruption. Shifting responsibilities back to the local level will not help.
He said the idea local governments can solve the problems of more than 10 million people who petition in China is a very naïve dream of scholars, showing they [scholars] do not know where these grievances come from.
Petitioners have turned to Beijing for personal matters ranging from land grabs, forced eviction or corruption.
In 2002, a local court in Hubei province ruled against Liu Yujie in a divorce proceeding on the grounds her whereabouts where unknown. Liu said her ex-husband had colluded with the court, and she was left homeless and alone in caring for her disabled child.
She has been petitioning for the court to reverse the ruling, and has made trips to the capital because she said she has exhausted all her other options.
In her last trip to the capital, Hunan authorities found her in Beijing and brought her back to her hometown.
She said we have gotten back to the original point. If the local government does not accept our cases, and we also cannot go to Beijing anymore, we have no channel left to solve our problem.
Reform of the legal system has become a buzzword in China, where the leadership acknowledges corruption and lack of independence of the courts as a major threat to its legitimacy.
Proposals to reduce local governments' influence on courts by shifting responsibilities over the court's budgets and personnel to higher authorities have been debated for years.
The topic has gained prominence again in the fall, when Xi Jinping announced his blueprint for reform.
Analysts agreed the move might in fact help make courts more independent, and reduce the number of grievances that have not been solved locally.