Document Type


Publication Title

Stanford Journal of International Law



Publication Date



xinfang, China, Chinese legal institutions, petitioning


Formal legal institutions are almost entirely absent from the lives of most Chinese citizens. A range of petitioning institutions and practices operate as a dysfunctional proxy for formal legal channels. Deeply rooted in imperial Chinese history, these practices and institutions have survived into the present in the form of citizen petitioning efforts directed at numerous “letters and visits” (xinfang) bureaus distributed throughout Chinese government organs, including the courts.

This Article examines the historical origins and regulatory basis for the modern xinfang system. It outlines the characteristic tactics of Chinese petitioners who seek to use the system to resolve their grievances. The Article also examines the overlap between xinfang institutions and formal legal ones, and analyzes statistics suggesting that the use of the former far exceeds the latter.

The Article argues that the xinfang system serves as a multi-purpose governance tool for Chinese leaders, with resolution of individual grievances but one of several objectives. Xinfang interests overlap with, but also contradict, those of formal legal institutions. Further, Chinese xinfang regulations and institutions create a unique incentive system to which the behavior of Chinese petitioners is an adaptive response. This interplay not only poses serious challenges to the development of the rule of law in China, but may also be fueling a dangerously escalating cycle of social destabilization.