The official Xinhua News Agency said late Tuesday that it was the first time since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 that a premier has met with ordinary petitioners.
China Central Television quoted Wen Jiabao as telling visitors and staff at the bureau in Beijing on Monday afternoon that the government must "create conditions that allow citizens to criticize and supervise the government, and enable government to responsibly resolve the problems and difficulties of the masses."
China is extremely wary of dissent. The government doesn't allow protests and routinely censors the media and internet of any content that is potentially destabilizing or overly critical of the leadership.
Outspoken critics of the communist regime, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, have been jailed on vague subversion charges.
Wen has spoken before about giving the public greater freedom to voice anger and frustration over social problems such as corruption. The comments have been interpreted by some as a signal that the leadership wanted to more aggressively pursue democratic reforms, but they have yet to be followed up by concrete initiatives.
A human rights activist said Wednesday that Wen's high-profile visit to the bureau would likely result in more petitions being filed, which was unfortunate since the petition system is widely seen as an outmoded and ineffective way of resolving grievances.
Human Rights Watch researcher Phelim Kine said in an e-mail that Wen's public encouragement of the petitioning system would "likely only attract greater numbers of Chinese citizens, particularly the marginalized rural residents ... to seek redress through a broken petitioning system which rather than resolves past abuses, continually creates new ones."
In China, local officials are under pressure to have no petitions from their area, since their performance is linked to the number of grievances filed a sign of instability from their locality. As a result, petitioners are sometimes detained by thugs before they can file their petitions and held in illegal jails that are covertly run by officials.
Kine cited a Chinese government-backed study from 2004 that indicated that only a tiny fraction 0.2 percent of a sample of 623 petitioners successfully resolved their problems through the petitioning system.