BEIJING | The street outside the State Bureau of Letters and Visits in the south of Beijing is packed with about 200 unconvincing actors.
Most are middle-aged men, and some are armed with sightseeing props: crumpled tourist maps of the capital and Beijing 2008 Olympic T-shirts. Yet they spend all day in the same spot, sitting on foldaway stools, chatting and smoking. Others wait at a line of bus stops, spurning every bus that passes.
These “retrievers,” as they are known, are local officials, plainclothes police officers or simply heavies hired by local governments to do their dirty work.
They have a common goal: Round up and return petitioners who have traveled to Beijing to file complaints of injustice and corruption against government officials in their home provinces.
Their numbers have swollen in recent weeks because of an additional motivation: an order by the Beijing government to rid the streets of petitioners before the Olympic Games.
The chances of petitioners resolving their cases are remote at any time of the year, said Yu Jianrong, director of the government-backed Institute of Rural Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
In a recent report, Mr. Yu concluded that only one petition in every 500 succeeds.
Seeking redress in the capital is a process that stretches back to imperial times, when Chinese villagers traveled hundreds of miles in an attempt to relay tales to the emperor of mistreatment at the hands of local authorities.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese carry on the tradition every year at petition offices in Beijing, imploring the central government to come to their aid.
Observers say the practice highlights the lack of options available to ordinary Chinese battling abuse of authority at a local level and is not conducive to fostering the image of harmony China craves for the Olympics. For the duration of the games, the petitioners´ right to protest has been put on hold.
“During any political event and large-scale meeting, especially something like the Olympics, local officials are under extreme pressure not to have large numbers of petitioners in Beijing,” said Carl Minzner, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied the Chinese petitioning system.
Petitioners say police began rounding up people lining up outside petition offices in the middle of July. The Hong Kong Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported that 1,500 petitioners were arrested July 14 to 16.
“The police just started arresting people like crazy. The government is being much stricter this year,” said 61-year-old Ye Xin Kun from Henan province, who has been seeking justice for his wife´s wrongful imprisonment since 1996.
In the past 12 years, he said, he has been detained and sent back to his hometown on numerous occasions and sentenced to a stint of “re-education through labor.”
“A few weeks ago, there were several thousand of us in Beijing; now there are only a few hundred,” said Shaanxi-born Cheng Kun Fu, who wants file a petition claiming that a man suspected of killing his son and daughter-in-law escaped trial because he bribed local officials.
Before the Communist Party Congress opened in September, a shanty village, where petitioners huddled in tiny shacks while they waited for news of their cases, was demolished.
Petitioners are now scattered all over the southwestern district of Fengtai, many of them forced to sleep rough because the government has closed the small hostels that used to provide cheap beds.
Mr. Cheng and Mr. Ye are among a disheveled group of 70 who spend every night under Taoran Bridge on a path that runs alongside a canal.
“The police are always trying to catch us so that´s why we hide down here,” said Mr. Cheng. He said they take turns to look out for the authorities and run away at the first suspicion of danger.
Petitioners, who have been in Beijing for months, or even years, know they have almost zero chance of triumph during the Olympics.
“We don´t dare go and petition now. If we do, they will grab us and take us away. We have to wait until the Olympics are over,” Mr. Cheng said.
For the retrievers, the next few weeks promise to be lucrative because of the financial benefits for each petitioner they return home. Local officials are fearful of being reprimanded by higher authorities if the number of petitioners from their locality exceeds an official quota set by the central government.
These days, it doesn´t matter if they fail to intercept the petitioners before they walk through the gates of the State Bureau of Letters and Visits.
Many work in collusion with staff inside the petition offices, said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics and China issues at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
“Petitioners register their cases at the office, but the retrievers are allowed to wipe out their registration details and take them away. So there is no longer a record of the case, which ensures the political futures of local officials are unaffected,” Mr. Hu said.
Washington University’s Mr. Minzner said a recent central government regulation “added fuel to the fire.” It threatened local officials with severe penalties if their failure to resolve conflicts at home prompted a flood of petitioners to Beijing.
Although the regulation is aimed at deterring local officials from malpractice, it is likely to make local officials so concerned about protests that their priority becomes to stop petitioners at all costs, he said.
The block on the petitioning process during the Olympics is likely to have negative consequences for the government in coming months.
“A large number of petitioners are renting cheap housing in the suburbs and waiting until the Olympics are over. After the games, there will be a huge surge in the number of people standing outside the petition offices,” Mr. Hu said.
China´s leaders also have to factor in the long-term political cost of central departments appearing to be linked with local Communist Party leaders.
“Once [petitioners] discover that local party and government leaders bribe corrupted central departments of letters and visits, they will come to see these departments as conspirators of political corruption,” Mr. Yu, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in a recent paper.
“They might thereby develop a strong sense of political despair, which is the hotbed of radical sentiments and behavior,” he said.