China's Party meet brings pilgrimage of discontent

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BEIJING, Oct 12 (Reuters) When Chinese President Hu Jintao promises a more ''harmonious society'' to a Communist Congress next week, he will find an eager but bitter audience among thousands of petitioners struggling to be heard by their well-guarded leaders.

China's Communist Party Congress will gather 2,200 delegates to affirm Hu's hold on power for another five years and applaud his idea of a society cleansed of discord.

But the five-yearly Congress is also a magnet for thousands of ragged ''petitioners'' from villages and towns across the nation who see the meeting as a rare chance to expose farmland confiscations, graft, unpaid wages and other grievances.

Often wielding the Party's own vows of justice for the downtrodden in well-thumbed sheaves of complaints, petitioners congregate near the city's southern railway station, close to where the government has special offices to receive them.

In past weeks, a dragnet of police and officials has been seeking to catch them before they can upset plans for a Congress free of disharmony. But many are still prepared to run the gauntlet.

''The more tense it is, the more people want to come here, because the pressure on officials is bigger,'' said Xie Yunsheng, a wiry farmer from Hebei province next to Beijing who has been protesting against village corruption claims since 2002.

''We know there's little chance of getting heard, but we have to grab at what we can, even if that means running into Xinhua Gate,'' he said, referring to the entrance of the Party leadership's tightly guarded compound.

CONTROL This pilgrimage of discontent is especially troublesome for Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao. They have proclaimed their sympathy for poor farmers and workers struggling for a foothold in the country's bustling economy.

But the massive security clampdown shows that Hu's government still places a premium on control.

The Party may want to improve ordinary people's lives, but it is also deeply wary of those actively demanding rights, said Carl Minzner, a law professor at Washington University in St Louis who has studied China's petitioning system.

''It's an institutional problem at the heart of the Chinese political system. People at the top want to be seen to be making a difference and caring,'' Minzner said.

''That sends the signal that if only I can get to Beijing then my grievance will be resolved. But then the centre becomes overloaded with petitions and reacts against those expectations.'' The effort to rein in petitioners has gone hand-in-hand with house arrests and apparent detentions of dissidents, including rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared from his home on September 22, Yao Lifa, a political organiser in central China not heard from by his family since early October, and Beijing activist Hu Jia, whose months-long house arrest has been tightened.

But rights advocates are a straightforward challenge compared with the determined droves of discontented farmers and workers.

For them, ''petitions and appeals'' are one of the few legally sanctioned ways of voicing grievances in this one-party state.

In the past decade, the number of petitioners journeying to provincial capitals and to Beijing has swelled. Nationwide, petition visits grew from 4.8 million in 1995 to 12.7 million in 2005 -- dwarfing the 4 million new civil cases heard by courts that year.

For central leaders, the complaints are a useful barometer of discontent, even if particular complaints are rarely solved, said Minzner.

But local officials often intercept petitioners and threaten or cajole them into silence before their complaints reach central officials' ears and sully political scorecards, especially around sensitive times such as next week's Congress.

In past days, Beijing has seen an unusually intense version of the cat-and-mouse game with petitioners, who said they had to contend with a net of police ready to nab them around central Tiananmen Square, petitions offices or dank hostels where poor visitors sleep on plank beds for 0.40 dollars a night.

Petitioners who have crept into the capital were still keen to voice grievances to anyone who would listen.

''The ordinary people have been swindled. All the crows under heaven are black,'' said one seasoned campaigner, Zhou Qingshui, quoting a traditional phrase meaning that no officials are clean.

But most petitioners see President Hu and Premier Wen as goodhearted men whose efforts have been sabotaged by wayward local officials.

''Farmers have a much higher assessment of them than of Jiang,'' said petitioner Xie, referring to Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who focused on shepherding China into the global economy.

''The problem is that so many of their policies and laws are ignored at the grassroots. That's why we try to crawl to the top.'' REUTERS NY RAI1249

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