They flock to the capital by the thousands during the annual meeting of China's legislature -- farmers, laid-off workers and evicted families who travel for days from the destitute hinterlands on a pilgrimage hoping to have grievances heard by the central government.
Bearing complaints ranging from corruption to personal injuries to land conflicts with officials, they got no satisfaction from local authorities and hope the National People's Congress will provide a forum for their woes.
Wanting to break that cycle, Chinese leaders imposed a law in January telling officials to take care of cases locally so that aggrieved parties don't make their way to Beijing.
But they just keep coming, echoing a centuries-old tradition of appealing to Beijing that predates the start of Communist rule in 1949.
"I thought there might be a chance for my case during the NPC," said Li Ming, a factory technician who arrived this week from the central city of Zhengzhou, where she says her hearing was damaged after police beat her up. She said provincial authorities would not accept her case.
Since coming to Beijing, Li said she tried to bring her story before the legislature, the Cabinet, the state prosecutor's office and the Public Security Ministry before she was told to go home -- not an option she wants to consider.
"I hope to stay in Beijing and see my case resolved," Li said.
Increased security during the legislative session makes it impossible to get close to the Great Hall of the People, where the meetings take place. Still, a handful of protesters have tried -- and have been taken away in police vans -- since the March 5 start of the NPC. The legislative session is due to close on Monday.
Every year, dozens and sometimes hundreds of people are detained in a pre-emptive effort to prevent protests during the legislature.
This year, the wife of a jailed lawyer and Shanghai residents who have protested their forced evictions were among those detained, the New York-based group Human Rights in China said yesterday.
Jiang Meili, whose husband, Zheng Enchong, is serving a three-year prison term on charges of disclosing state secrets, was detained by Shanghai police on Thursday along with her sister, HRIC said. Zheng had been advising Shanghai residents who are suing one of China's richest men over the demolition of their homes.
Another Shanghai woman, Shen Yongmei, who had gone to Beijing to petition over development projects, was detained March 6 and forced to return to Shanghai, HRIC said.
Ren Wanding, a veteran dissident who spent a total of 11 years in prison for advocating Western-style democracy, said police have been outside his home since last week.
"I think most of the people I know are in the same situation as me," he said.
Liu Wei, a spokesman for Beijing police, said he had no knowledge of any detentions.
The obscure state petition office in the southern part of the city is another sought-after destination.
It is located in an unmarked building in a small alley. Only signs for a printing press and a local Communist Party school suggest that the area houses more than a maze of residences.
Outside, hundreds of people who found the office despite the lack of signs gather, bundled in thick winter coats and squeezing six and seven deep behind yellow police tape hoping to gain access. It's unclear how that's done.
Others sit on the sidewalk, head in hands, or mill with other complainants, smoking as they swap stories of their troubles. One man has set up a shoeshine business, while another sells horoscopes.
Representatives sent by provincial governments keep an eye on people from their regions. Almost as many police as petitioners are on hand, ready to jump in if the crowd gets rowdy.
"You won't understand my problem," one petitioner tells a reporter. "It's too big."
Like many at the scene, she is deeply suspicious of strangers, fearing they might be undercover police. She refuses to give her name or say why she is there.
A man in a faded green overcoat tells his friends, "They won't let us in."
He sighs and joins them sitting cross-legged on the ground.
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