Zhang, wearing a fur hat and carrying a sack held together with safety pins and filled with more than 20 law books, returned to Beijing on Christmas Day. He went to China Central Television, the state-run national network, seeking help. It was his fourth visit. He said officials told him that without personal connections, the network wouldn't consider his story.
"China's finished," said Zhang, 58. "The Communist Party is too corrupt for common people to make a living. I will protest and protest, and in the end, they will arrest me."
Given the apparent concern among the central leadership, it is difficult to say exactly why many local abuses still go unpunished. Some observers point to the country's overwhelming size and the willingness of midlevel officials to protect their underlings.
Pressure certain to build
No one knows how long the party can manage corruption and official abuse without overhauling the authoritarian system that facilitates it. The pressure seems almost certain to build.
The greatest potential sources of unrest are the losers in China's move from a command economy to a more market-oriented one: farmers and state workers. Foreign competition after Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization will throw millions more laborers out of work and push millions more farmers off the land.
Despite rising discontent and cynicism, the government still seems to have time.
Farmers and workers are angry, but politically ineffectual so far. Poor and poorly educated, they have neither the tools, such as cell phones and computers, nor the organizational skills needed to outflank the party's security apparatus and galvanize opposition across the country.
And in rural areas, where conditions are at their worst, peasants sometimes blame local officials for abuses while continuing to voice support for the central leadership.
"The party is still somewhat warm toward the common people," said Jin Qiaoling, 40, a farmer from Central China's impoverished Henan province. "It gives money to wipe out poverty, but when it reaches the local level, it's taken away."
The last time a Chinese regime faced problems of this nature and magnitude, it was run out of the country.
During the late 1940s, in the midst of the Chinese civil war, the Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek committed identical abuses: excessive taxation, invented levies, property confiscation and embezzlement. Chiang's Nationalists lost public support, which contributed to Mao's victory.
During his early days as a revolutionary, Mao quoted an old Chinese saying in a letter to fellow Communist and would-be successor Lin Biao: "A single spark can start a prairie fire."
As tinder continues to accumulate, the warning may be as apt today as it was then.