Thousands of petitioners converged on the state complaints bureau in Beijing on Monday, as the authorities struggled to keep a lid on public displays of discontent ahead of a crucial meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"This morning around 4,000-5,000 people came to register complaints and petitions," said petitioner Zhang Minghou, who was at the scene. "I arrived at about 3.00 a.m., and there were already one or two hundred people there."
"By 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. the entire street was packed with people," said Zhang, who traveled from his home in the northeastern port city of Dalian to lodge a complaint with the central government in Beijing.
"There were a lot of security personnel there too," he added. "There were several dozen just from our home region alone," he said. "There were probably between 1,000 and 2,000, I'd say."
"They filled the main street [outside the complaints bureau]," Zhang added.
At least 10 petitioners were detained in the makeshift "villages" where they rent ramshackle, temporary accommodation, according to the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website, which confirmed Zhang's estimate of the numbers.
According to Liu Jinwei, a petitioner from the northeastern province of Jilin, large numbers of petitioners have been forced to leave the Beijing area entirely, following a crackdown on their temporary accommodation ahead of the Party's forthcoming 18th Congress.
"The government is despicable," Liu said. "The petitioners were previously staying in Shoubao village, but they stopped them from staying there and closed it down, putting up steel barricades and security guards at the entrance."
"All those people moved to Lu village, and they closed that down too, so they moved again to Fangshan Xiying, but they wouldn't let them stay there, either," he said. "Now all these people are staying outside [the Beijing municipality] but nearby, in Hebei province, Shanxi."
However, Liu said the petitioners were still aiming to target the secretive gathering, the date for which has yet to be announced.
"They are waiting for the 18th Party Congress to start, and then they'll come back [to the capital]," he said.
Rights activist Peng Zhonglin said he had been forced to move a number of times in recent weeks.
"They are asking for ID cards from anyone renting rooms now," he said. "If people like us try to [rent], it'll be very hard for us to get rooms. Even the places out on the edge of the city want identification now."
"We have moved to a place that is almost in Hebei [province]," Peng said. "It's very far from the city."
Not all of those with complaints come from outside the capital.
Xu Xiangyu said she was still pursuing a complaint over a violent and forced eviction from her Beijing home six years ago.
"[We were] subjected to a violent and forced eviction on May 15, 2006," Xu said. "The developers never paid us any compensation, so we took it to court, and won."
"But the judgment hasn't been implemented to this day," she said.
Last month, landlords in Beijing were warned by the authorities that they must terminate rental contracts with out-of-town residents pursuing complaints against their local governments ahead of the Party Congress.
Activists say the moves are part of a wider security clampdown ahead of the Congress, which is expected later this year, with orders sent to every level of government, including district-level, village-level, and neighborhood committees.
China’s army of petitioners say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.
The contemporary "letters and visits" system was formally established in 1951 and reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
China says it receives between three million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, with the number peaking at 12.72 million in 2003.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.