Reuters International

A petitioner shouts slogans during a gathering of parents who lost their only child outside the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China, in Beijing, China, April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday issued instructions to better resolve the grievances of the country's petitioners, urging officials to fix disputes locally before they evolve into bigger problems.

Tens of thousands of "mass incidents" - the usual euphemism for protests - occur each year in China, triggered by corruption, pollution, illegal land grabs and other grievances.

Many people try to use "petitions" to bypass the legal system and directly bring complaints to the attention of government officials, a system that dates back to imperial times, though some cases do end up in court.

Few cases ever get resolved though, and petitioners can stage noisy protests out of frustration. Often if their grievances remain unaddressed, they will travel to the capital, Beijing, to try to raise awareness, a process that unnerves the stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party.

Local departments must take on responsibility to comprehensively use laws and policies to educate, mediate, and remove obstructions to resolve the people's reasonable and legitimate legal interests, the official Xinhua news agency cited Xi as saying.

"All local departments must strengthen risk assessment and administration at the source, and strive to resolve conflicts and disputes at the grassroots level to nip them in the bud," Xi said.

Despite international criticism, petitioners are often forced home or held in "black jails", unlawful secret detention facilities where detainees can be subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation and psychological abuse.

China has made a series of efforts to reform the system by cracking down on illegal imprisonment of petitioners and pushing for the process to go online. The government does not formally acknowledge that black prisons exist.

In 2014, China banned petitioners from taking their grievances directly to higher levels of government without first going through local authorities.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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