China's leaders sent greetings to the people this week to welcome in the Year of the Ox. But they also warned of challenges ahead with the economy expected to face severe difficulties.
Significantly, a senior Chinese official, State Councillor Ma Kai, urged officials at various levels to be careful when they handle public complaints, since there may well be an increase as a result of the troubled economy. "We should place great importance on new social problems amid the international financial crisis," Mr. Ma said after a two-day meeting of heads of public complaints departments.
With an estimated 10 million migrant workers having lost their jobs, there is a widespread atmosphere of gloom. Add to that a touch of defiance of authority and you have a potent mix.
The public mood was reflected in the case of Yang Jia, who was executed in November for stabbing to death six Shanghai policemen. The 28-year-old unemployed man had walked into a police station and killed the officers in a matter of minutes.
Surprisingly, the public sympathized with the killer, with many asking whether he had been driven to take such extreme action because of police abuse of power.
This month, the Southern Weekend newspaper asked readers what they considered the 20 biggest events of 2008. The Yang Jia case was ranked first, ahead of the Sichuan earthquake and the poisoned-milk incident.
Mr. Yang was arrested in 2007. Police suspected he had stolen a bicycle, which he had actually rented. He later accused the police of beating him, but his complaints and demands for compensation went unheeded. Last July 1, he entered a police station and went on a stabbing spree.
Ai Weiwei, a renowned artist who collaborated in designing the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird's Nest, said in an interview with Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of Hong Kong that Mr. Yang did not attack the policemen he accused of beating him but instead killed "as a protest against the system." During his trial, he challenged the judge by saying: "The police dare to do so because you are behind them."
Although the central and local governments all have "letters and calls" departments, where officials are supposed to deal with complaints made by aggrieved members of the public, only rarely are complainants satisfied with the way they are treated.
In fact, there are often reports of local officials barring citizens from taking their complaints to higher levels. There have even been highly publicized cases of protesters being locked up in mental institutions to prevent them from lodging complaints.
The state councillor, Ma Kai, issued a statement urging officials to smooth communications with the public and handle legal requests carefully. Officials were told to work with other departments to ensure proper implementation of policies that aim to improve living standards. They were also asked to advise local governments on the issues people complain about most and how to resolve them.
It is not enough to hold a meeting and urge officials to carefully handle "legal" requests. The central government must punish local officials who block those with grievances from trying to lodge complaints at higher levels.
Officials often lie in wait outside "letters and calls" offices, kidnap those who wish to make complaints, and return them to their towns and villages. This is well known, and yet the central government has not publicized any actions against such officials.
Until local officials see that the central government treats complaints and petitions seriously, they will continue to frustrate the wishes of citizens to lodge protests. And as frustrations increase, more Yang Jias will appear, and their sympathizers, too, will multiply.
Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.