A chaotic brush with people who have little hope
I was braced for a chaotic response when I told a group of petitioners gathered in a small backstreet near Beijing's South Railway Station that I was a journalist, but the reality was much scarier.
There was a stirring in the crowd, which had gathered to exchange information about laws and regulations and the addresses of government departments and party elders. The petitioners started pouring out their emotions.
They told me how their lives had been destroyed by corrupt officials who tore down their houses, how their land had been seized, their pensions embezzled, their relatives killed by gangsters. And how the police turned a blind eye to all of it.
They treated me like I was their last hope after officials and police repeatedly rejected and abused them during their quests for justice. But I told them I could not solve their cases, that I was only there to solicit their views about whether the petition system should be reformed, or even scrapped.
The crowd grew bigger as more petitioners joined in. The level of emotion rose, too.
They dragged my jacket and my bag, scrambled to give me their petitions and shouted how they had been ignored by officials when they handed them in. They described how they were stopped by police from their home provinces who waited outside the State Council Petition Office to stop petitioners from handing in letters, and how they were beaten up by police and officials.
When I asked them how long they had been petitioning, tears came to their eyes and one almost broke down.
'Nine years,' said Zhou Liqing from Heilongjiang. 'My life is ruined and I have no hope of living.'
Jiang Hongwei, from Shenyang, said: 'I have been roaming for three years. Look at my child - he is eight years old and he has never been to school.'
Most had come to Beijing many times, sleeping in cheap guesthouses or even outdoors and waiting outside government departments, media offices and even the homes of retired leaders during the daytime.
I asked them why they continued when they knew that hardly any petitioners ever had their cases resolved.
'We have no other way. What can we do?' one shouted.
Another shouted: 'We have no hope. If we return to our home town, the local officials are even worse.'
Another shouted: 'The local officials are so corrupt. Local courts are like robbers!'
When I saw the crowd was getting out of control, I tried to sneak out and began walking down the street. But petitioners flooded after me, carrying their stools, bags and large stacks of paper.
I noticed people along the street were staring at me and I turned my head - a crowd of almost 100 people was running after me. I tried to persuade those next to me to stop, but they would not give up.
'Give me your phone number!' 'Listen to my case, it is really serious!' 'Help me, I have no hope!' 'Let me come with you, only me. I can tell you more!' 'Ignore the others. Don't listen to them. I have a serious case to tell you about.'
When I reached the main road and stopped a taxi, one woman tried to force her way in as well. Others followed.
In the sternest manner I could muster, I told her to respect me and get out of the cab. The crowd backed off with a gasp of surprise and I left as quickly as I could.
I had many calls from petitioners in the following days.
Gao Xuekun from Shanghai said: 'A high court official said my petition journey had come to an end because there was no higher authority to accept my letter. There is nowhere I can petition anymore. Where should I go? What can I do? I have no home now. My home has been demolished.'