As millions of families across China geared up for several days of full-on eating and gift-giving to usher in the Year of the Goat, hundreds of people pursuing complaints against the ruling Chinese Communist Party gathered in Beijing to sing songs of protest, with many saying they don't know where their next meal is coming from.
Unofficial choral groups of petitioners sang songs titled "The Road to Injustice," "Petitioning is Hard," and "The Five-starred Red Flag Flutters in The Breeze," a petitioners' campaign website said on Wednesday.
The latter song depicts a China in which corruption and abuses of official power are rife and in which ordinary people are oppressed, calling for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, the People Power Movement website reported.
"A lot of people were singing in the room" hired for one event, a participant told RFA on Wednesday.
"But there were a lot more singing outside as well," he said.
"We were singing so loudly about the courage of petitioners, and songs of victory for our petitioners. We want Beijing to bring us justice."
He said the songs had boosted everyone's morale at a difficult time of year.
"Whatever happens, we won't be afraid; we will battle on to the end," he said.
One of the event's organizers, Heilongjiang petitioner Chang Hongyan, said the evening's entertainment was aimed in particular at wishing Chinese President Xi Jinping and other national leaders a Happy New Year.
"We petitioners have a saying, that no matter how hard things get for us, even if our families are broken and our loved ones are dead, we will still wish Xi Jinping a Happy New Year," Chang, who hired a room for the event, told RFA.
"We petitioners have no homes or family, and some of us are sleeping rough," she said, adding: "My family's situation is slightly easier than a lot of the others'."
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.
Many have been trying to win redress for alleged cases of official wrongdoing—including forced evictions, beatings in custody, and corruption linked to lucrative land sales—for decades.
For many, the new year brings scant hope that their lives will improve, Chang said.
"Last year, I had nothing to eat on New Year, so I brought some items specially this year," she said. "Petitioners never have anything to eat, and they just wander the streets and get detained by police."
"A lot of petitioners can't even get a hot bowl of food, let alone a New Year celebration," she said.
Nonetheless, according to the People Power Movement website, many groups gathered to form spontaneous choral groups to perform the same songs across China on Wednesday and Thursday, the first day of the Year of the Goat.
Jiangsu petitioner Ji Shulong said many petitioners were afraid of police raids on their choral gatherings, however.
"The places we're staying in aren't really secure, and we are really worried that the police will detain us," Ji said.
"They are detaining people all over, and driving them away ... We have to duck and dive and hide."
"It's as if it's a crime to lodge a complaint to a higher level of government. I live in fear that they could take me away at any time," Ji said.
Ji, a former farmer whose land was taken by a government land grab, has already spent several months in police detention.
"When I was inside, they made me wear manacles and leg-irons for more than 50 days," she said. "I was held for two years under criminal detention."
"I hadn't committed any crime; I had just gone to Beijing to complain [about the local government]," Ji said.
In the central city of Wuhan, a group of 50-60 petitioners were taken away by riot police after they gathered outside district government buildings in Wuchang, petitioner Liu Moxiang told RFA.
"We have no food or water, and yet the civil affairs department officials eat meat, spare ribs, stuff like that, and then they chuck the rest in the bin because they can't finish it," Liu said.
"The petitioners went there to ask for them to give us something to eat, but they refused," she said. "That's how hard-hearted they are."
On Tuesday, some 200 petitioners who had gathered outside the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the central government complaints office were detained and taken to unofficial detention centers before being escorted back to their hometowns, Chang said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to and Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.