Nonetheless, even the Petitioning Bureau Chief Chen Guoqiang recognizes the difficulties that the city faces. Chen noted that the bureau’s staff tended to be nearing old age, and that their educational levels were low, and efficiency was low, causing the people to be unsatisfied. The city’s various government offices receive over 160,000 petitions per year, and Shenyang takes the unenviable honor of placing first in the number of recorded unauthorized (非正常) petitions to Beijing for a city in its category (副省级城市).
Chen, quite frankly and accurately, attributes the massive petitioning problem to the fact that Shenyang is an old industrial town: enterprise restructuring, bankruptcy, are big problems, as well as the welfare payments to retired teachers and the illegal money gathering schemes. (For background information on these issues, see CLB’s report “No Way Out: Worker Activism in China's State Owned Enterprise Reforms”, which details the many abuses of workers rights and the widespread corruption that flourished during the State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) restructuring process in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Also, see this article, which discusses the pyramid scheme in which many people in Shenyang, often unemployed laid-off workers, tried to strike it rich by buying ant farms to produce liquor made out of ants, and other medicinal products using ants. Unfortunately, the Yilishen case turned out to be one of the largest pyramid scams in the PRC’s history).
Certainly, petitioning bureaus are often notoriously understaffed, and many Chinese college students tend to be overly concentrated in too many “hot” majors, such as English, tourism, and computers. From that point of view, setting up a “petitioning major” can only be seen as a good match for giving students much needed jobs while fitting an urgent social need. One the other hand, one might question the degree to which even the brightest and most idealistic of students will be able to solve longstanding problems under the current petitioning system rubric. As pointed out in “No Way Out”, the courts basically stopped accepting cases related to the privatization of SOE’s. Former deputy chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court Huang Songyou said, “No collective disputes triggered by wage in arrears at SOEs due to state industrial policy or corporate restructuring can be accepted (by the courts) for the present…Persuasion must be used, conflicts must be defused, and settlements reached in coordination with the branches of government concerned”. Although Huang Songyou later resigned in a corruption scandal, the SPC’s decision to not touch SOE restructuring cases presumably remains intact, and employees at the petitioning bureau would therefore be left powerless to address the problems at the heart of many petitioners’ demands.
Nonetheless, it’s worth watching this trend, and seeing if any sort of progress can be made in this difficult area.