They arrive from distant villages and towns in groups of five or less, eyes downcast as they approach the entrance to the walled compound. Many wear the drab bulky clothes of China's hardscrabble countryside, and their bags are stuffed with dog-eared documents, tattered photos, and photocopied letters.
They are China's growing army of petitioners, seekers of justice in a labyrinth that often seems designed merely to thwart them. Many spend years, even decades, appealing to the government to correct the abuses committed in its name, propelled by the belief that somewhere in the system is a sympathetic official who will heed their cry. Their chances of getting their complaints heard is estimated to be just one in 500.
Rapid economic growth has transformed the lives of China's poor, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of wretched conditions. But the dismantling of the welfare system, together with rampant corruption and illegal land seizures, has seeded social tensions that often erupt into confrontation with local authorities. And in a political order stacked against them, China's dispossessed face an uphill battle to voice their grievances over the injustices that scar their lives.
"For these people, petitioning is the only channel. They can't turn to their local congress or the courts," says He Junzhi, a political scientist at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China's modern petitioning system – called xinfang, or "letters and visits" – has its roots in dynastic times when commoners could seek the intervention of the emperor and his mandarins in their local affairs. One method was to travel to the capital and bang a grievance drum outside an imperial institution to summon help. Visitors to modern xinfang offices still speak of "petitioning the emperor."
There are no limits on how many petitions can be filed, and to which agencies. Nor are there clear guidelines on how xinfang offices should deal with petitions, which can also be sent by post or e-mail. The result is a Byzantine system that provides a safety valve of sorts in a country where the rule-of-law is still a work in progress. More than 11 million petitions are received annually, almost double the number of legal cases handled by the courts.
"The impression among many government officials is that until the legal system is built up, xinfang is serving an important function," says Jason Tower, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan studying dispute resolution in China.
Last year, the number of mass protests rose to more than 87,000, up from 10,000 in 1994. Party leaders recently agreed to reform the system after a surge in unrest linked to land grabs and other abuses, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
However, researchers say that far from quelling tensions, new restrictions on petitioner gatherings may actually be radicalizing complainants. In squatter camps in Beijing, rural petitioners are finding common cause with each other, stirring a nascent protest movement. Some use extreme methods to vent their rage: In 2003, a farmer nearly died after setting fire to himself in Tiananmen Square. He had traveled to the capital to protest the illegal demolition of his house.
"There's a growing notion that the only way to resolve disputes is by large numbers [of petitioners] getting together. The more attention you can draw, the better chance you have of getting the dispute solved," says Mr. Tower.
Cai Zhenfang's story began in 1998 when her home in Shanghai, which had been in her mother's family for four generations, was earmarked for clearance. She refused an offer of resettlement and sued the city government. Then, she says, her troubles really started. Thugs attacked her family and drove them out without any compensation before her home was demolished. Her daughter was excluded from primary school on the orders of the mayor's office, she claims.
After her local petitions and lawsuits were rejected, Ms. Cai traveled to Beijing in 2003 to ask the national government to intervene. She alleges that thugs sent from Shanghai intercepted her and bundled her out of the capital to prevent her from filing her petition, a common tactic by local authorities trying to cover their tracks. Scores of "retrievers" wait daily outside xinfang offices in Beijing, looking for petitioners from their particular hometown to intercept before they can raise the alarm.
When the party's central committee met this month, Cai sneaked into the Beijing hotel where the top leaders were staying with her bundle of documents. Police grabbed her and beat her so badly that she lost her hearing in one ear, she claims. Then they sent her back to Shanghai.
"Local officials don't want people to travel to Beijing, because if too many are petitioning, then they [local officials] will feel political pressure," says Mr. He. "The central government wants leaders to resolve problems at the local level."