01/26/2011, 00.00
CHINA
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Wen Jiabao meets petitioners, urges authorities to respect them

Chinese authorities, especially in local government, usually show no tolerance to petitioners who are often threatened, beaten or even detained without trial. Now Wen urges local officials to be patient with them and make themselves available to their fellow citizens. Experts view Wen’s move as a way to relieve social tensions, but others call for real actions.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Monday met petitioners from Tianjin, Jilin, Shandong, Inner Mongolia, Hubei, Hebei, Shanxi and Jangsu. He listened to their complaints, promising that he would do something for them. “I came here to seek your opinions on the government's work. Please don't hold anything back, and give me the facts,” he said.

Most of the petitioners Wen met voiced grievances about forced evictions and land seizure disputes. "As some cases of land expropriation and house demolition happen in rural areas, the State Council is conducting research to work out relevant laws and regulations [to protect peoples' rights]," he said, because, as he acknowledged, “Land is the lifeline of farmers”.

The premier urged the authorities, especially officials in charge of complaints, to be patient with petitioners and address their problems.  “Our government is a government of the people,” he said, “and our power is granted by the people”.

State-owned China Central Television broadcast the meeting, which was widely reported in other media, stressing that it was the first of its kind since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Petitioning central authorities against local injustice is an old Chinese practice that goes far back into the past when subjects had the right to petition imperial authorities. However, Communist China has shown little tolerance for petitioners. On order of local authorities, the police has often threatened, beaten and arrested people trying to forward their grievances, sometimes locking them up in “ghost” prisons, unofficial detention centres where “troublemakers” are sent for months without any rights or trial.

Experts view Wen’s move as an attempt to ease social tensions by giving a voice to protesters and confronting local problems rather than trying to hide them, as is often the case.

Professor Zhu Lijia, from the Chinese Academy of Governance, said Wen's visit highlights the seriousness of domestic dissatisfaction with bad local government as evinced by rising mass protest.

Data show that in 2008, 87,000 economically motivated protests were recorded in the country. In 2005, almost 13,000,000 petitions were presented, a number that has since dropped according to the authorities.

Political analyst Hu Xingdou praised Wen for his initiative. However, “as long as problems with the petition system exist, largely due to the absence of the rule of law, we will not see any changes in the fate of petitioners,” he told the South China Morning Post.

Wu Wei, a petitioner from Beijing's Haidian district, was sceptical about Wen's meeting with the petitioners. “Those people Wen met don't look like real petitioners and I simply don't think it is possible for Wen to meet people like us," he said. "What he did is just for show, which will not help in alleviating our sufferings.”

Wu has been petitioning over his forced eviction since 2007.

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