In an absolutely fascinating article on the modern petition redress system1 focusing on attempts by regional officials to prevent petitions from reaching a national office, the Financial Times sidebar, “Confucian Accountability” says
China’s petition system dates back to the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago. It embodies a Confucian tradition that idealises an authoritarian yet benevolent ruler who puts the concerns of his subjects above the interests of corrupt officials.
There’s the obvious point, that the Zhou dynasty predates Confucianism by a half-millenium or more. Confucius never dealt with the issue of petitions2, nor can I recall any pre-Han thinker postulating such an active (and literate) role for commoners. All of them, though, put the welfare of the people and the state above that of individual (especially dishonest) officials. One of the principle concerns of the more institutionally-minded figures (Mozi, Xunzi, Hanfeizi) is how to pick honest officials, and root out (or work around) dishonest ones, but none of them argue for violating the chain of command, even in extraordinary circumstances. They want a monitoring system which works well in normal circumstances, not something which encourages disorder.
The sidebar continues
After the 1911 republican revolution, petitioning was abolished by the Nationalist government. The Communists reinstated it soon after their 1949 revolution.
Experts say petitioning remains basically unchanged from the system in place 500 years ago in the Ming dynasty, when the formal evaluation of government officials began to take into account the number of petitioners who travelled to the capital from their region.
Since the Nationalist government was a democratic/republican system, presumably petitioning wouldn’t be necessary. I’m a bit surprised that the article didn’t take a slightly more critical approach to the idea that petitioning was a normal process over the last sixty years and only recently has started to break down. I can’t imagine that petitioning for redress in the era of Mao or Deng wasn’t fraught with danger for the petitioner, from the problem of unauthorized travel to the assumption that Party officials are always in the right. The responses that the article describes — detention, harassment, false imprisonment under the guise of mental illness — are classic Communist party tools for handling dissension, used widely in the Soviet Union as well as in China.
The last point in the sidebar — the use of petitions as a metric of administrative quality — is central to the article: the extralegal attempts by local officials to suppress petitions and petitioners is rooted in systemic self-protection, the avoidance of the appearance of trouble. Modern transportation technology, as the article notes, makes travel easier for petitioners, and has contributed to the rise in numbers. But, of course, the nature of modern society is such that it is also much easier to identify, track, monitor petitioners now than it was even fifty years ago, much less five hundred. The problem of danson minpi (“honoring officials, despising the people” as the Japanese put it) was intense during the latter half of the 20th century in China: the scaling up of suppression efforts to match the scaling up of petitions is pretty much par for the course, but the information environment is very different now, and the question of government legitimacy more intense.