BEIJING (Reuters) - Add one more contest to the spectacles on show during the Beijing Olympic Games -- the national protest hurdle.
With China's leaders demanding that none of the nation's simmering unrest upset the Games, officials have launched an onslaught of checks to stop aggrieved citizens reaching Beijing.
On Sunday, 19 days before the Games open on August 8, that crackdown intensified with even tighter checks on travelers coming to the capital. But while these "petitioners" may be outmatched by the rings of police at rail and bus stations and government offices, the contest is not all one-sided.
Many citizens nursing well-thumbed files filled with grievances have defied the security barriers and warnings in the hope of winning attention for their woes at this sensitive time.
On Sunday, dozens gathered near official petitions reception offices in Beijing's south, yelling out claims of police torture, lawless land grabs, and court corruption. Many said they expect to be thrown out or detained in coming days.
"They take away hundreds of us every day," said a farmer from Zhejiang province in eastern China, only giving his surname, Ma. "We're waiting to see who can tough it out for the longest."
Others are biding their time in rented village huts and makeshift shelters on the city's outskirts, avoiding police watching the petitions offices, and waiting for the Games.
"It's like guerrillas. We've scattered to the hills and countryside," said one of them, Yu Zhonghuan, a soft spoken man from Shanghai who for years has pressed for compensation for a demolished apartment.
"We thought the Olympic Games would be an opportunity to resolve our problems. It's not turning out that way, but this is our big chance."
The Games have borne hopes, sometimes encouraged by Chinese officials, that they will nudge the one-party state to become more relaxed and liberal.
But the campaign against peaceful if pesky petitioners suggests the Games have been used to hone and brandish methods of political control the Party considers essential to its survival. "This has revitalized the instruments of social control," Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said of the pre-Games crackdown.
"This is a step back from a society shaking free of control and arbitrary power."
The ragged farmers and small-town residents who risk this pilgrimage of discontent to the Chinese capital stand out too much among the shining, cleaned cityscape to have much hope of making it near Tiananmen Square or other high-profile sites.
Visiting state "petitions and visits" offices in provincial capitals and Beijing has for decades offered a rare channel for ordinary people to vent complaints. The roots of the system reach back to ancient times, when subjects could petition the emperor and his officials.
Yet even in ordinary times, such journeys are a risky and often futile venture. Police from distant provinces lurk around the petitions offices in the capital, waiting to whisk complainants from their home areas into detention.
As the Chinese government readies to display its modernizing achievements at the Games, this security trawl has become an immense national dragnet coordinated by top leaders, with 110,000 police and security troops guarding the capital.
Zhou Yongkang, the Communist Party's top law-and-order official, recently visited Hebei province next to Beijing to inspect the "protection moat" screening trains, buses and cars for potential troublemakers and security threats.
"Without security assured, there can be no successful Olympics, and the national image would be lost," Zhou said, according to the China Police Daily on July 15. "The stability of Beijing must be ensured through nationwide stability."
Government spokesmen have often said these controls fit with past Games' practices and are aimed at terrorist menaces.
But hundreds of official orders make clear that many measures are focused on stopping petitioners who are a public relations rather than a terror risk. Directives on many local government websites set out demands for halting these potential protesters.
"Strictly ensure key individuals who may threaten social stability are subject to administrative measures, with no loopholes or lapses and no abnormal petitioning to Beijing," states one on the Web site of the Jinmiaopu Town government in Shanxi province (www.jcjmp.com.cn), hundreds of kilometers (miles) from Beijing.
But the fervent official commitment to a trouble-free Games means, paradoxically, that petitioners treat such events as a rare chance to shame anxious officials, said Carl Minzer, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies China's petitioning system.
Many petitioners echoed this sentiment, waiting to see if they can elude police sweeps and somehow make a splash in August.
"Many people feel that if they don't get their problems addressed during the Olympic Games, they'll never see them solved, because the Games are the biggest kind of pressure," said Wang Zhongsheng, a bearded, heavy-smoking man from Dalian in northeast China, who alleged that police stole his money.
"I'm a Chinese citizen and I've got a right to be here," he said. "I want to see how they treat us in broad daylight."
Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jeremy Laurence