Around 1,000 petitioners from Shanghai have converged on Beijing ahead of China's parliamentary sessions next month in a bid to highlight their complaints against local governments.
"Right now there are more than 1,000 people who have already arrived in Beijing, by our estimate," Shanghai petitioner Shen Lida told RFA on Monday from the Chinese capital.
"We have been forced to come to Beijing ... to ask the central leadership to pay attention to us," Shen said. "The local governments are full of corrupt criminals engaged in activities that are against the law."
"We have come to bring our injustices to our mother and father, the central government," he said. "We want justice, and legal and reasonable solutions to our cases."
China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), will hold its annual session at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 5.
Its advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), convenes two days earlier in Beijing.
Such top-level meetings are a magnet for the vast number of Chinese people who are pursuing complaints against their local governments, often for years at a time and with scant hope of redress.
But petitioners who get past a tight security cordon around Tiananmen Square, including security scanners and bag searches for documents, are promptly detained and taken to unofficial detention centers on the outskirts of Beijing.
Last May, Beijing banned the practice of complaining to higher levels of government in cases where the local authority hadn't yet dealt with the complaint.
But petitioners say local authorities often retaliate against them with arbitrary detentions, beatings, and other forms of harassment, and never allow a complaint to make it far enough through the system to qualify for a higher review.
China's "letters and visits" complaints system is flooded with some 22,000 new complaints daily across the country, according to government figures from 2013.
Right to complain
Shen said his fellow activists had left their families during China's Golden Week new year holiday in a bid to make it to Beijing before security arrangements are tightened ahead of the NPC.
"When we arrived, there wasn't [much security]," Shen said. "But today, there were police, neighborhood committee people, and officials from different districts detaining petitioners at [Beijing's] southern railway station."
Shen hit out at the practice. "Petitioners have the right to complain to any level of government or any department," he said. "What are they afraid of?"
Fellow Shanghai petitioner Li Xuemei said she is now being held under tight surveillance by the authorities, with a security detail of three watching her every move.
"They are afraid that I'll try to go to Beijing for the National People's Congress," Li said. "That's why they're keeping an eye on me."
She said a ruling Chinese Communist Party official from her district government, Ma Jiawei, had confiscated her ID card, making it impossible for her to travel or rent a room.
"No department should be allowed to confiscate a citizen's ID card," Li said. "This is totally illegal, and he's the secretary for political and legal affairs."
"He knows the law, and yet he breaks it," she said, adding that Ma had told her she could have her "freedom" if she left her ID as a deposit.
Meanwhile, authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan are preparing to try an octogenarian writer on public order charges and for "running an illegal business" after he wrote to the NPC calling for press freedom in China.
Huang Zerong, 81, widely known by his pen name Tie Liu, was detained by police at his Beijing home in September on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
He was later also charged with "running an illegal business" and was transferred to police detention in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu.
"I can confirm that the trial will take place ... on Wednesday at the Qingyang District People's Court in Chengdu, Sichuan," Tie's wife Ren Hengfang told RFA in a recent interview.
But she said she had no other details of the case.
Tie's defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said he planned to plead guilty to the charges in a fast-track judicial process taking account of his age.
"Under the fast-track process, the defendant doesn't contest the charges and doesn't offer any defense at the hearing, which makes it all happen very fast," Liu said.
"They will then have to issue a verdict within 20 days," he said.
Rights activists say Tie's arrest could be linked to an article he wrote slamming tight controls on press freedom imposed by former Communist Party propaganda czar Liu Yunshan.
According to the article, "Liu Yunshan is a person of the lowest order ... and the driving force behind the corrupt elite in charge of China's media."
"He is more evil than [former propaganda chief] Deng Liqun and more left-wing than [former Xinhua news agency chief] Hu Qiaomu," wrote Tie, who served a total of 23 years in prison during the "anti-rightist" political campaigns of the Mao era.
He was eventually rehabilitated with the advent of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1980.
Tie then founded Mark of the Past magazine, focusing on the injustices of the "anti-rightist" campaigns. The magazine was shut down by the government in 2011.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.