China's leader in surprise visit to 'abused' citizens

China's Premier Wen Jiabao took the highly unusual step yesterday of visiting the country's top petition bureau in Beijing, where people who have had their rights abused by officialdom gather to seek help from the government.

Going to the petition bureau often earns the plaintiff a painful kicking and a ticket home, or sometimes a stay in a detention centre. But amid growing public dissatisfaction about land grabs, police torture, official corruption and unhappiness about rising prices in China, the government is keen to show it cares.

Premier Wen, a leader called "Granddad Wen" for his common touch, urged citizens to voice their criticisms of the government and speak out about injustice. It was the first time since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 that a premier has met ordinary petitioners.

The government must "create conditions that allow citizens to criticise and supervise the government, and enable government to responsibly resolve the problems and difficulties of the masses," he said.

His visit to the petition bureau comes just before the start of the Year of the Rabbit, which begins on 3 February. This is a time when Chinese people try to get any outstanding business cleared before the arrival of the new lunar year.

For a government mindful of the need to keep a firm grip on single-party rule, clearing up growing public anger about abuse by officialdom features high on the order of business.

Petitioning is an ancient system dating from the imperial era, where Chinese people who felt they were being abused by the system turned to the Emperor for help. They would travel to the capital to petition for the assistance of the supreme authority.

The petitioners' first port of call is the "letters and visits" office of their provincial capital. If they fail to get anything from the local officials, they then head to Beijing to plead their cases.

The tradition has continued in the Communist era, but in the past few years it has become a dangerous practice. Any petitioners seen near Tiananmen Square, for example, are rounded up and often jailed in so-called "black jails" or the "petitioners' hotels".

Premier Wen made his visit as the Chinese blogosphere was abuzz about a violent satirical cartoon made to mark the start of the Year of the Rabbit. It is a daring revolutionary call to arms and was initially spread via Chinese social networking sites, although it has since been blocked.

The video starts off looking like an animated nursery rhyme, with rabbits playing in the field, while the soundtrack is a modified version of a children's song.

It quickly turns violent, featuring some of the big themes of contemporary China, including the plight of petitioners, but also toxic milk killing babies, official cover-ups and a fire in which many die, although the leaders, personified by rabbits, escape.

In one scene there is reference to a cadre's son who allegedly ran over a young woman while drunk and tried to use his father's high office to avoid responsibility.

He told passersby "Sue me. My father is Li Gang," believing he was untouchable because of his father, a high-ranking regional official. The final scenes are of the rabbits rising up and attacking the leaders. "The year of the rabbit has come. Even rabbits bite when they're pushed."

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