The area flanking Beijing's South Railway Station is the city's hub for thousands of petitioners - Chinese from far-flung provinces who seek redress for government or private enterprise abuses.
But with a key Communist Party congress around the corner and city fathers eager to beautify Beijing before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, authorities want to level the blighted zone in the name of urban renewal.
The timing of the demolition has troubled human rights activists, who say authorities are using urban renewal plans to achieve a second objective: sweep rabble-rousers and malcontents from the city and ship them back to their home provinces.
"They have to contain the wave of petitioners and do a good security job before the 17th party congress," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. The congress, a gathering of party officials that begins Oct. 15 to determine the next generation of China's leaders, takes place every five years.
"They just want to stop us from petitioning anymore," said Li Guizhu, a 43-year-old woman from China's northeastern rust belt who seeks to overturn what she says is a wrongful robbery conviction.
Demolition crews were set to enter last Wednesday, according to posters around the Fengtai district neighborhood. But the razing seems to have been postponed while plainclothes enforcers, known as "retrievers," detain petitioners and forcibly put them back on buses to their hometowns.
"On Saturday night, police from Liaoning province (in China's northeast) took eight busloads of petitioners back," said Li, who added that she evaded the roundup.
China's unique petitioning system, which dates back thousands of years, allows citizens to submit grievances in Beijing over the behavior of officials in their hometowns. In modern times, instead of kneeling before the imperial court, petitioners knock at the Supreme People's Court or Zhongnanhai, the compound where senior officials live.
The system has no standing in law but is seen as a buffer for discontent.
Until the past few days, some 2,000 to 3,000 petitioners would rent bunk beds or tiny rooms at any given time at the petitioners' village. The population is now down to a few hundred after days of action by "retrievers," petitioners said.
"The reason they are driving us away is because the Communist Party Congress is approaching," said Liu Jie, an organizer from Heilongjiang province at the village.
The skeleton of the new South Railway Station, the largest train station in Asia, soars behind the petitioners' village, which will be razed to make way for access roads.
The neighborhood is a tableau of desperation. Petitioners throng foreigners who show up, thrusting photocopies of legal cases into their hands and begging for help. They complain that Chinese media do not air or print their stories.
A sobbing woman lunged before a visitor and fell to her knees. "I will kowtow to you," she wailed. "I'm petitioning on behalf of an entire village."
Papers provided by the woman, Guo Guiqin, state that factory owners in cahoots with officials in Xingtai city in Hebei province have seized farmers' land illegally.
Others complain of unsolved murders, official corruption, abusive mistresses of local officials, noxious chemical spills, coal mine abuses and a litany of other woes.
The swelling ranks of petitioners in Beijing are an embarrassment for the central government, which is attempting to enshrine a goal of building a "harmonious" and "well-off" society by 2020.
The root of the problem lies in a political system that doesn't provide routes of redress for average citizens, especially when they are wronged by the state, said Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "The number of petitioners is increasing," he said. "If the political system doesn't change, there's no way to resolve petitioners' problems ultimately."
Bequelin concurred that many petitioners grow more frustrated with time.
"Our perspective is that it radicalizes people in the long term. It's not a sound alternative to access to justice," Bequelin said.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Di contributed.)
© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers