A petitions website set up by Beijing's ruling Chinese Communist Party to handle public complaints crashed on its first day of operation, as activists said they were skeptical that it would offer a genuine opportunity to redress grievances.
The State Bureau for Letters and Calls site crashed shortly after going live on Monday, amid widespread speculation that the sheer number of petitioners had overloaded the server.
No official explanation was given for the crash, but official media and petitioners also raised questions over privacy and anonymity on the site, which came back online later on Monday.
Others said the site was an attempt to emulate the White House’s online petition service “We the People,” which requires only an email address to register, and which was dubbed "the U.S. branch of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls" after it attracted a flood of petitions from Chinese Internet users, many of them satirical attacks on their own government's dismal track record in responding to complaints.
China's army of petitioners—many of whom pursue complaints against the government over forced evictions, wrongful detention, physical attacks, and deaths in custody—are increasingly targeted by police and officials for punishment.
Many of those who pursue official complaints against government wrongdoing in their hometowns have done so to no avail for several years; some for decades. Many are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income who rent ramshackle accommodation in Beijing's "petitioner villages."
The site was conceived as part of a series of reforms aimed at "closing the gap" between the Chinese Communist Party and an increasingly restive population.
However, it is unclear whether the site will prove any more effective than existing complaints offices, although officials have promised a response for every complaint filed on the site, which is only compatible with Internet Explorer, and limits attachment sizes to just 2MB.
Veteran Hangzhou journalist Zan Aizong said he thought it unlikely.
"It's quite likely just another way of diverting attention, to make people think the Party really is close to the people, and that the petitioning system is moving with the times," Zan said.
"But it really cut through their lies, even on day one, perhaps because no one could get onto the site, because the server was too small and the volume of Web users was too high, and the whole thing crashed," he said.
"Or maybe it's ... to deter people from complaining about their issues, so there's nowhere for them to send things."
Netizens also hit out at the service as being unsuitable for older people, who might not know how to use the Internet.
No fall in numbers of petitioners
Beijing rights lawyer Xing Jianshen said he had seen no appreciable fall in the numbers of petitioners crowded into shanty towns and rented rooms in the capital.
"It seems that online petitioning isn't much use to elderly petitioners," Xing said.
Shanghai petitioner Jin Yuehua said she had little faith in the online service.
"It's hard enough when we go once a month, in person, to the complaints office on collective petitioning day," Jin said. "They still round us up, and use the power of the state to contain us."
"How can an online service, where there is no human contact at all, be an improvement on this?" she said.
Concerns of blacklisting
Jin said she had set up an account last September on the site in anticipation of the launch, but has yet to log on successfully, possibly due to government filtering of her case.
"They have blacklisted some of the sensitive cases," she said. "There were three of us who registered together, and the other two managed to log on, but I was the only one who couldn't."
Zan said petitioners were already kicked around like "footballs" from department to department, and that the online version of the complaints office was unlikely to be different.
Longstanding petitioning system
While they frequently report being ignored by complaints bureaus, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by the authorities, China's petitioners are nonetheless making use of a legal and official channel for complaints and grievances: the "letters and visits" system.
Initially established in 1951, the petitioning system was reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
China says it receives between 3 million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, on average.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.