Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei have thrown a security cordon of armed police around an anti-corruption inspection team from Beijing after it was swamped by ordinary people with complaints against alleged government wrong-doing.
The team was one of 13 sent by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to probe official business across the country.
Inspectors are charged with looking for "possible misconduct," including corruption, failure to implement the Party's frugality directives and other policies as well as malpractice in official selection and promotion procedures, the CCDI said in a statement at the beginning of the month.
But the team was kept separate from hundreds of people who converged on government buildings with complaints in recent days, as the authorities drafted in large numbers of police, plainclothes state security police and private security guards, eyewitnesses said.
"There are uniformed police standing guard on both sides of the streets, as well as some plainclothes officers driving around in cars," Hebei petitioner Bao Runpu told RFA on Tuesday.
"There are a lot [of people with complaints]," he added. "No sooner does one group leave than another arrives."
But he said none of the petitioners was being allowed to meet with the investigation team directly.
"They can't meet with them," Bao said. "They have set up a hotline but it doesn't matter how often you call it; you can't get through. It's permanently busy."
He said he had been followed to provincial government headquarters by a detail of police from his hometown.
"The first day, they detained me and wouldn't let me go," Bao said.
Repeated calls to the anti-graft hotline resulted in a busy signal during office hours on Tuesday.
A second petitioner, Zhang Cuilei, said the inspection team had been "totally surrounded" by police since arriving in the province.
"There's one every three paces, with security guards and plainclothes police squatting in the bushes at the roadside," Zhang said. "As soon as they see someone, they leap out and grab them and take them away."
"Some wait in their cars," Zhang said. "They're everywhere ... They drag you onto the buses they have standing ready. The interceptors are everywhere."
She said police were checking the IDs, questioning and searching the bags of anyone who tried to approach the buildings.
"They are at every intersection, across a few square kilometers," Zhang said. "There are several thousand of them; the streets are full of them."
Zhang said the complaints office of the provincial government was "piled high" with petitioners.
"If they don't find a way to end corruption here, we'll definitely find a way to meet with the investigation team," she added.
Hebei legal advocate Tian Qizhuang said mounting public outrage at corruption has led to a massive "overflow" in attempts to win redress.
"Corruption is so widespread ... that it is bound to create a strong backlash," Tian said. "[But] the authorities are afraid to dig up the turnip for fear of the dirt that will come up with it."
"That's why they surround themselves with interceptors, because they're worried that some of these people's complaints will actually be heard by central government."
Army of petitioners
China's army of petitioners pursue complaints about the government, often for decades and in spite of extrajudicial detentions, beatings, and other forms of mistreatment.
They say they are increasingly stonewalled by the courts, and instead flood the government's "letters and visits" petitioning system with more than 20,000 new complaints a day, according to figures released last November.
China's Administrative Procedure Law allowing citizens to sue the government was passed during an era of relative political openness, the late 1980s, and commanded wide support among intellectuals who believed it could help hold an increasingly corrupt government to account.
But in today's China, anyone seeking to file a lawsuit, the majority of which involve eviction or land disputes, will find the country's courts highly unwilling to accept the case, campaigners said last month.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.