BEIJING - Deng Buhua and Yang Qiandi's dank, windowless boardinghouse seemed like the sort of place with no room to spare for hope. By the train tracks in the dusty slums of south central Beijing, the shack was far smaller than a railroad car and crowded with people who had tales of cruel injustices.
The 16 people there had come to Beijing from all over China, having endured persecution, corruption, and loss of land and loved ones in the provinces.
Denied a fair hearing at home, they converged on the capital to take their cases to the central government.
They lined up at complaint windows that operate outside the courts and extend the prospect of a benevolent ruler's reprieve.
The police, the courts, the prosecutors, the military, numerous ministries from agriculture to education to land resources, the Communist Party's disciplinary wing and each level of government all have their own petition offices.
And petitioners can walk into any one of them - in their hometown, in Beijing or at any layer of government in between - to register a complaint about any perceived wrong.
But the ubiquity of these offices ends up working against petitioners.
At worst, lodging a complaint invites the wrath of the local officials being complained about, who are often informed of the petition either through connections or by design.
At best, typically, walking into an office is the first step into a bureaucratic maze without an exit.
Some of the petitioners at the boardinghouse had lost family members, like Huang Qiong from central China, whose 15-year-old son was beaten to death by schoolmates five years ago.
Huang was a poor miner, and the alleged killers were well-connected, he said. So most of them are free, and Huang is here. Others, like Yang Xingcai, from remote northwest China, had lost their farmland, bulldozed by influential developers and their corrupt party patrons.
Some, like Yang Qiandi from southwest China, had been harassed or jailed for lodging complaints about corrupt officials and the illegal fees they levy, the business deals they make or the violent criminals they protect.
The petitioners were following the spiritual footsteps of countless peasants who made the same long journey for justice in imperial times. They inherited an ancient folk wisdom in China: that local officials may be corrupt, but the leaders in Beijing must be good.
A new generation of Communist Party rulers, led by President Hu Jintao, seemed to hew to that wisdom, proclaiming last year that the central government cared about the people's problems.
These petitioners' desperate complaints, however, were repeatedly rejected.
"These petition offices are not effective at all," said Yang Qiandi, a self-taught legal agitator from Sichuan province. "It's just a device that the government uses to fool its people."
Yet the other boarders in Yang Qiandi's and Deng's home still hope that they can one day have justice, and it was Yang Qiandi, the late Deng and the Communist Party that gave them that hope.
Deng, branded an enemy of the party 47 years ago, was denied redress longer than any of them, the political rehabilitation he so desired still withheld even as he died last month.
"The common people of China are poorly educated, and their knowledge of the law is meager," Deng said in an interview shortly before his death at the age of 78. "That's why local governments can bully some of the common people, because they know too little about the law."
Collecting 60 cents a night from each boarder and using their own money, Deng and Yang Qiandi started a legal assistance fund to help Yang pay for a Beijing law school.
It was an act founded on the same poignant faith that if it were not for the lawless abuse of power by bad local officials, the system would work.
"I want to help Hu Jintao manage the country with the rule of law ... and use the rule of law to clear away all the bribery and corruption," Deng said, sitting on his bed beneath a gold-tassled crimson banner on the wall proclaiming, "Democracy, Human Rights, Rule of Law, Justice, Fairness, Openness."
China's development of rule of law has been one of the great hopes of reformers and human rights activists for 25 years, since Communist leaders began modernizing its legal system. The promise of rule of law, written into the constitution in 1999, has infused millions of disaffected farmers and workers with hope for a just society, but the government is still not ready to fulfill that promise.
China has made strides in training lawyers and judges and resolving standard civil disputes, especially where neither side has political connections. The government wrote a new constitution 22 years ago and amended it this year to include protections for human rights and private property.