The monarchy in England had absolute power until 1215 when the Magna Carta was presented to King John at Runnymede. This agreement imposed certain limitations upon the government. It did not guarantee rights to all the people, but it set the precedent for the subjects of the kingdom to set limits upon the rulers. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 expanded this right to all people in the kingdom. The part of the English Bill of Rights addressing the freedom to petition the government reads like this:
“That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.” It would take another 250 years to achieve universal sufferage for example.
This medieval practice has been swallowed up in constitutional law and today it is unheard of for a mere commoner to petition the Queen directly.
In China taking ones grievences to the ultimate ruler of the nation continues an anachronistic human right in that country, one which over the centuries has very rarely brought ‘justice’ to the petitioner. The novels of Charles Dickens are peppered with similar instances of the iniquities of the Victorian legal system. Too many people stand between President and peasant, siphoning away real injustices thus preventing the decision makers from accumulating all the facts necessary to enable them to appreciate the asparations of the common man. The very people employed to arbitrate on the nations behalf are corrupt both politically and morally.
One decision maker to buck the trend, not for the first time, is Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao who has recently met citizens in Beijing petitioning for redress over unpaid wages, home demolitions and land grabs. It was the first such trip by a Premier since communist China was founded in 1949, although he was in Tiananmen Square with Zhao Ziyang. His visit to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, where petitioners go to file complaints with authorities, highlighted the acceptance by the government that they need to listen to the people amid rising levels of public protest across China. Listening to the people is something that many politicians no longer do, whether it be in Tulsa, Tianjin, Tunis or Taunton. Only time will tell if his visit has the desired result.