BEIJING (Reuters) - Following a practice which dates back to imperial times, hundreds of thousands of petitioners from across China stream into Beijing each year in the hope that their grievances, often spawned by local officials, will be rectified once central authorities are made aware of their plight.
Anxious not to look bad in front of their political masters in the capital, the same local officials despatch teams to travel across provincial lines to intercept, detain and forcibly return petitioners home.
It is a bleak game of cat and mouse that plays out all year but intensifies during periods when politically sensitive meetings are held, like the National People's Congress which kicks off in Beijing this weekend.
The case of Wang Fengyun - a villager from Duolun county in Inner Mongolia who travelled to Beijing nine times to seek justice over an alleged local government land grab - would have been otherwise unremarkable.
But having detained and charged Wang, as well as her husband and her father, with "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", the Duolun government proceeded to detail the time and cost it invested in "dissuading" her persistent petitioning over five years, according to documents seen by Reuters tendered in court as proof of her "extremely harmful" behaviour.
Duolun's county government said it spent 335,000 yuan ($48,700) on costs including overtime for night-time surveillance, "extra security" and — ostensibly to feed those working shifts — a "canteen" staffed by 10 workers.
The disclosure last month, apparently made innocently by the administrators of a remote and sparsely populated county in China's north, provides rare insight into the lengths taken to subdue petitioners and displays of public dissent.
It comes despite what the central government in Beijing says are genuine efforts to improve its petition system, which is believed to have evolved from ancient times where complainants would beat drums outside administrative offices or throw themselves in front of sedan chairs to plead for an audience with the emperor's senior officials.
"Petitioning is a citizen's legal right," Wang's lawyer, Wang Fei, told Reuters. "For the government to interfere is an abuse of power."
The Duolun government's assertions were "ridiculous" given the financial outlay was not for legal law enforcement, Wang Fei said.
In April last year, President Xi Jinping ordered local officials to do better to resolve the grievances of petitioners, urging them to deal with disputes before they evolved into bigger problems.
There has also been a push for the process to go online, but the State Bureau of Letters and Visits, which receives petitions in Beijing, said in 2014 it had received 250,000 personal visits from petitioners.
Across the country, some six million petitions are submitted each year, according to the state bureau.
After three straight years in which China's domestic security budget drew headlines for exceeding its fast-growing military budget, the central government stopped publishing details in 2014.
In 2013, it said it spent $130 billion on domestic security, which covers everything from monitoring dissidents to breaking up workers' strikes and protests, part of the government's policy of "stability maintenance" emphasised by former president Hu Jintao, significantly expanding the powers of China's domestic security apparatus.
Wang's lawyers have compared her plight to that of the main protagonist in Feng Xiaogang's 2016 film, "I Am Not Madame Bovary". The movie's lead, a woman from the countryside, spends years travelling to Beijing to petition after being swindled by her ex-husband.
After a chance encounter with senior officials in Beijing, a chain reaction results in local government officials who tried to stop her from reaching the capital being removed from their posts.
In Duolun, Wang's case returns to court in mid-March where she and her family face up to five years' jail each if convicted.
Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Nick Macfie