Spy Agency Official Takes Helm at China’s Petition Office

April 16, 2020 Updated: April 16, 2020

News Analysis

In a sign of the Chinese regime’s growing fear of popular discontent, a top State Security official has been appointed as the new head of the state petition office, a deputy-cabinet level agency responsible for hearing public complaints.

Since 2018, Li Wenzhang has headed the Political Department of the powerful and secretive Ministry of State Security (MSS), which controls the Communist regime’s secret police force.

But according to a State Council announcement on April 15, he was named as head of the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration, also known as the State Letters and Complaints Bureau or state petition office.

On paper, the petition office is supposed to listen to aggrieved citizens from all around the country and help resolve their complaints. But it is commonplace for Chinese petitioners to get detained and tortured by police and local officials.

Judging from the backgrounds of previous petition office chiefs, it is evident that the party-state increasingly views public complaints from a national security perspective.

Since it was set up in 2000, the state petition office has had four directors.

Zhou Zhanshun, who held the position from 2000 to 2004, dealt with public complaints throughout his career.

Wang Xuejun, who headed the office from 2004 to 2013, was a provincial party official in Hebei before taking up the post. Neither Zhou nor Wang had a security background.

But Li Wenzhang’s immediate predecessor, Shu Xiaoqin, served as the provincial security chief in Jiangxi for over a decade. She headed both the provincial Public Security Department, which controls the regular police force, and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP).

The appointment of Li, a top MSS spymaster, appears to be another escalation in the regime’s paranoia over risks of instability, and may signal harsher tactics against petitioners.

Li Wenzhang’s Background

Li spent most of his adult life in Ningxia, a western region with a significant Hui Muslim population. He started off in the 1980s as a Communist Youth League official, but was later promoted to the regional CCP (Chinese Communist Party) Committee and gradually rose through the ranks.

Li has had considerable experience with security work, having headed Ningxia’s Justice Department and prison administration.

In 2015, Li was promoted to be the head of the Politics and Law Committee of the Ningxia CCP Committee, controlling the entire security portfolio of the region.

In 2016, he was transferred to Liaoning Province in northeast China to lead the provincial Politics and Law Committee.

In 2018, Li became the director of the Political Department of the MSS.

Hong Kong Deputy Liaison Chief Removed From Post

According to the same State Council announcement, Yang Jian, deputy director of the central government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, was removed from the post.

The Liaison Office, which reports to the State Council, serves as the platform for Beijing to project its influence in the city. After a proposed extradition bill triggered widespread protests in Hong Kong last year, the office came in for criticism for misjudging the situation.

Earlier this year, top officials in charge of managing Hong Kong affairs, including Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office, and Zhang Xiaoming, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, were replaced.

But it is not clear if Yang’s removal was linked to the previous personnel changes, as the 61-year-old has passed the retirement age for vice-ministerial officials.