In today’s Christian Science Monitor comes a story of peasants so desperate in their search for justice, that they bypass their local courts and bring their plaints and pleas to the gates of Zhongnanhai.
Rapid economic growth has transformed the lives of China’s poor, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of wretched conditions. But the dismantling of the welfare system, together with rampant corruption and illegal land seizures, has seeded social tensions that often erupt into confrontation with local authorities. And in a political order stacked against them, China’s dispossessed face an uphill battle to voice their grievances over the injustices that scar their lives.
“For these people, petitioning is the only channel. They can’t turn to their local congress or the courts,” says He Junzhi, a political scientist at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Today’s petitioners are traveling a road to Beijing well-known to their forefathers.
China’s modern petitioning system – called xinfang, or “letters and visits” – has its roots in dynastic times when commoners could seek the intervention of the emperor and his mandarins in their local affairs. One method was to travel to the capital and bang a grievance drum outside an imperial institution to summon help. Visitors to modern xinfang offices still speak of “petitioning the emperor.”
Jonathan Ocko wrote an article several years ago on the appeals process in the Qing Dynasty and I’m taking my cues from his research.  At first, the Qing emperors saw the capital appeals process as a valuable way to gather accurate information on the state of the empire and to right the wrongs of corruption among officials. They figured that any person willing to travel all the way to the capital to seek redress must have done so with good reason. Even as the number of lawsuits grew, the court felt the appeals system was useful for ferreting out corrupt officials and “maintaining a healthy pulse in the body politic by removing the blockage of official negligence.”  As the years went by, of course, the population under Qing rule grew and grew while the administrative apparatus, from the center on down, stayed relatively unchanged. Even as the population nearly tripled* between 1644 and the turn of the 19th century, the number of county magistrates remained relatively unchanged. State services crumbled, administrative efficiency tanked, and the number of complaints began to overload the system of appeals.
As the Qing administrative system became increasingly predatory, many people had little choice but to appeal directly to the emperor. The idea was: my local official and his henchmen might be real bastards, but if the emperor only knew he would fix this…
Of course, officials in the capital knew what was going on, the problem was not how to handle the number of capital appeals, the problem was how to fix the endemic corruption, bureaucratic stasis, and manage a population that had outgrown the administrative systems—systems that the emperor (or, by this point, the Empress Dowager) and the Qing court were unwilling or unable to reform until it was all but too late.
Not that filing an appeal was ever easy. Officially, the charge for appealing a frivolous or false complaint could mean 100 strokes of heavy bamboo. (Even going to court was an unpleasant process—a few magistrates made the plaintiffs and defendants kneel on razor wire to speed up the proceedings and torture was not an uncommon means of extracting testimony even in civil cases.) Officials blamed pettifoggers (song’gun 讼棍) for encouraging unnecessary litigation and stirring up trouble. (Sound familiar?) But the number of cases continued to grow throughout the 19th century—both frivolous and serious—and it seemed that no amount of imperial decrees could stem the tide.
According to the CSM article, there are over 11 million petitions and grievances filed annually in today’s People’s Republic and sometimes a petition is not enough. A farmer set fire to himself in Tiananmen Square in 2003—he had traveled to Beijing to bang the grievance drum. And there are so many more waiting in line behind him. “If only Hu Jintao knew”…a system grows stale, corruption seeps through the cracks, the people travel to meet the emperor and plead for redress…and Beijing blames the lawyers. Where have I heard this before?
 Jonathan K. Ocko. “I’ll Take It All the Way to Beijing: Capital Appeals in the Qing,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 47, No. 2. (May, 1988), pp. 291-315.
 Ocko, p. 304.
 See John Watt, The District Magistrate in Late Imperial China (New York, 1972)
 See Melissa Macauley, Social Power and Legal Culture: Litigation Masters in Late Imperial China (Stanford, 1998).
* I’m aware of the debates over the exact figures for Qing population growth, but it is generally accepted that the population grew considerably over this period, quickly straining the administrative structures of Qing rule.