Mapping out the Chinese Petition System


Ever had a system crash on your computer? Remember that moment of annoyance not knowing what exactly went wrong while you furiously press Ctrl+Alt+Delete? It is frustrating for many reasons, not in the least because you have no idea why the system crashed in the first place. This scenario happens in legal systems as well. It is great when people make use of a legal system, but less so when the system is overburdened.


Legal systems are complex to analyze. The procedures are often dated, complex and not flexible to withstand our every-changing society. This does not necessarily mean that the whole system has to be overhauled when a fault occurs as this is a painstakingly slow, bureaucratic and costly process. A more efficient alternative would be to locate the problematic areas of a system through design-thinking. Design-thinking emphasizes ‘the user’ and user-centered solutions in the process of building new frameworks. One of the many ways in which design-thinking can help to locate the problematic areas is through mapping out the legal system through the perspective of ‘the user’. This is allows us to visualize the obstacles ‘the user’ comes across when the system is being used.

This project analyzed the petition system in China. This complex system is overburdened with the amount of petitions submitted each year. My objectives were to make sense of the system, detect the problematic areas and pinpoint where adjustment can be made to improve the system. Before we delve deeper into this topic, it is important to take a quick look at the Chinese petition system.


Petitioning, in Mandarin known as xinfang or shangfang, is an old and traditional Chinese concept.In Mandarin shangfang literally means visiting higher authorities. This concept originated in ancient China. If a citizen had a grievance he or she would travel to Beijing to appeal their case to the emperor. These grievances were accompanied by theatrical gestures and other rituals.The practice of petitioning survived and continues into the present day. Nowadays citizens can submit their complaints to governmental institutions through either letters and/or visits.

The petition system is used frequently by Chinese citizens and is perceived more favorably than other legal routes (Minzner 2006, p. 105).  This might be because the petition system places emphasis on mediation, which fits perfectly into the Confucian preference for mediation and harmony (Gillespie & Chen 2010, p. 67-70). Unfortunately, due to the popularity of petitions the system is overloaded. Before mapping out the problems, it is important to examine the procedural rules of the Chinese Petition System.

Procedural Rules of the Petition System

Every government level is obligated to create a petitioning institution. Currently there are not only petitioning institutions at every level of government but also for each separate governmental institution. Petitions are handled by either dedicated staff or separate institutions.

The petitioning institutions are allowed to handle almost every topic of complaint or other forms of submissions. According to the 2005 National Petitioning Regulations, citizens are allowed to receive information on a situation and submit suggestions, opinions, complaints and requests. A petitioner may submit, either individually or with a number of people, a petition in form of a letter, phone call, fax, visit or email.

There are no strict guidelines on the steps that follow once a petitioner submits a complaint. Once a complaint is filed, the petitioning institution may decide to intervene and solve the complaint with its own personnel or refer the petitioner to a different governmental or petitioning institution. This governmental institution may on its turn send the complaint back to the institution where the complaint was initially submitted.

Petitioning institutions have several roles, besides processing petitions. Petitioning institutions may also mediate, investigate and if its a high level petitioning institution, it may also provide advice to lower level governmental or petitioning institutions.

The petition system is complex, but it has several advantages as well.  The list below provides a quick overview of the advantages and disadvantages of the system.

The Advantages the Petition System

  • The officials at the petition institutions are obligated to submit their analysis of incoming petitions to high-ranking government authorities. Through this mechanism authorities are notified of existing structural problems.
  • The flexibility of the petition system allows authorities to use their discretion in dealing with the petitions.
  • Petitioning is strongly embedded in the Chinese culture. Citizens are used to this type of conflict resolution.
  • It allows citizens to participate in the political arena through voicing their grievances in the form of petitions.
  • The petition system provides an accessible form of conflict resolution for those who would otherwise not have access to other, more expensive, legal tools.

The Disadvantages the Petition System

  • The petition system is a complex maze of procedural rules.
  • Currently the petition system is overburdened with the amount of petitions that are submitted each day.
  • There is no clear-cut path through which petitions can be processed. Petitioners are often shuffled from pillar to post and have to wait several years before their petitions are handled.
  • Governmental authorities are weighed down by the large amount of complaints that are submitted every day.
  • The local authorities are reluctant to inform regional and national authorities of complaints as they are often reprimanded for possible faults.
  • Governmental authorities are allowed to send the petition back to the institution where the petition was initially submitted. This institution may, on its turn, refer the petition to another government institution without reviewing the content of the petition. This creates a vicious circle for a lot of petitioners.

Mapping out the Petition System

The regulations and literature illustrate that the petition system is a complex and chaotic maze of procedural rules. Mapping out the petition system from the perspective of ‘the user’ could help to make sense of this puzzle and locate the problematic areas of the system.


The figure at the top represents the potential petitioners. The multiple layers of the petition system are abstracted into three categories, namely: local, provincial and national. Each of these levels is further abstracted into multiple petition institutions (denoted as xinfang on the maps) and organizations. Organizations can be either governmental authorities or judicial courts. Each of these organizations is associated with at least one xinfang institution. This institution can be a separate institution or attached directly to the organization itself.


There are often multiple valid ways a petitioner could access the system. For example, a petitioner could start the petition at either the local level or at the provincial level.


Vicious circles are easily produced by the petition system. A xinfang institution could refer the petition to an organization that on its turn could refer the petition back again to the initial xinfang institution. This creates a vicious circle of no resolution.


Petitions at a local level can be forwarded to xinfang organizations and institutions at a provincial level. Once the petition is at the provincial level it can be referred back, by either the xinfang institution or the organization, to the local level. This creates another type of vicious circle for the petitioner.


Vicious circles can also be established by institutions on the same horizontal level. In the picture illustrated above the petitioner submits the petition to a governmental organization on a local level. This organization forwards the petition to a local xingfang institution on a higher level. The petition is then referred to a petitioning institution on a lower local level, which on its turn refers the petition back to where the petition was initially submitted.


There are multiple ways through which similar petitions could travel through the xinfang system. These similar petitions are reviewed separately by different xinfang institutions. This creates uncertainty for petitioners regarding the outcome of petitions.


The same problem can lead to complaints submitted by multiple people. Even if these complaints are exactly the same, they still have to be reviewed separately, which puts unnecessary pressure on the xinfang system.

After locating the pressure points

By mapping out the petition system from the perspective of ‘the user’, the path that the petitioner has to take becomes clear. The images above illustrate that there are several vicious circles a petition may get stuck in. Various mechanisms can be applied to these pressure points to break the circle. These can be legal, tech or design solutions. In this particular comparative research project I looked at how the Ombudsman could elevate some of the pressure points I mapped out. I will elaborate on this once my paper is published. However, the essence of this part of my research project was to examine the legal system from the perspective of a user. Design-thinking allows us to see, in this case quite literally visualize, the obstacles that ‘the user’ comes across. Naturally, solutions are important as well, but they are of no use if legal professionals and academics use a top down approach to implement changes. Legal systems have to be mapped out through the eyes of ‘the users’ in order to find effective and efficient solutions.

Project Details 
This blog post is a heavily abridged version of my research project. 
It will be edited throughout the next few months 
with more examples and illustrations once the paper is published. 
Status: finished 
Publication: in progress

Copyrighted by Nóra Al Haider 2015

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