China stresses rule of law in reform of age-old petitions system

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has issued new guidelines to strictly enforce the rule of law for those exercising an ancient tradition of seeking justice through petitions to higher authorities, as the central government tightens its grip on a system often marred by abuse. Petitioning in China dates back to imperial times, with the courts being seen as inaccessible by ordinary people, who often use the method to draw the attention of officials to local disputes, ranging from corruption to land grabs. Local and provincial officials often resort to threats and violence, however, to prevent dissatisfied complainants from approaching the higher levels of government. Government decision-making must become more transparent and solicit oversight from the public, say the new rules, issued on Tuesday, state news agency Xinhua reported. "Authorities will stick to lawful means to dissolve conflicts and disputes," it said. "Any malpractice that constrains the public from legal petitioning will be rectified and prohibited." At the same time, petitioners must not "leapfrog" their complaints to higher authorities, say the guidelines released by the central committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, or cabinet. Petitioners are frequently forced to go home or held in unlawful black jails, where they face beatings, starvation and sleep deprivation. (Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)