MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
While President Hu tours the U.S., there are thousands of people back in China who are desperate to have a word with him. They are part of a tradition that is hundreds of years old. People from all over the country travel to Beijing to try to find a sympathetic ear in the government.
As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, many end up frustrated and living in very poor conditions.
ANTHONY KUHN: Down a deadend ally near the train station on Beijing's south side, people are coming in and out of an unmarked metal door. Judging from their worn and dowdy clothes, they appear to be farmers and outoftowners.
Just inside, in a narrow, openair hallway, people are cooking lunch on a coal stove. On either side of the hallway are several dark rooms. In each, a lone light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates walls covered in newspapers. Ragged and musty quilts sit atop a makeshift wooden platform which sleeps ten. Another ten sleep on the floor, underneath the platform. This Dickensian place is a hostel for people who have come from across the country in search of justice.
ING YIN SHEN: (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: Forty-three year old Ing Yin Shen is from a village in eastern Zhejiang (ph) Province. She claims that her village's Communist Party Secretary kidnapped and sold her seven-year-old son. It was an act of revenge, she said, for a business dispute between her family and the party secretary. After 17 trips to Beijing and five years of trying to get her son back, Ing finally walked right up to the gates of power this January, with a megaphone in her hand.
YIN SHEN: (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: At 6:00 a.m. I went to the gate of Premier Wen Jiabao's home and I yelled for him. Then I went to President Hu Jintao's home and I yelled for him too. I believe Premier Wen now knows about my case, she says, and I'm just waiting for his response.
Ing didn't want to be yelling on the president's doorstep, it's just that she'd tried everything else.
YIN SHEN: (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: The courts wouldn't hear my case, she says, they completely ignored it. Local media also refused to report on her case, she adds.
At any time thousands of people like Ing are in Beijing seeking an end to suffering and injustice, crime and corruption. They travel from all over the country here by bus, train, and on foot in hope of finding a sympathetic and powerful official who will come to their rescue.
It's a tradition that dates back more than a thousand years. In Imperial times, Chinese law allowed commoners to appeal their cases all the way to the capital if they couldn't get justice at the local level.
Today, China still has a system in place for citizens to appeal their grievances, but experts say it resolves a tiny fraction of the cases brought by petitioners. Some experts are calling for the system to be scrapped.
Wong Li Ju (ph) from Halajian province in China's northeast and Don She Lu (ph) from central Hube province are brothers in suffering. They stand together in the hallway washing wilted cabbage leaves.
WONG LI JU: (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: These are all scraps we picked out of the garbage at a nearby market, they say. We can't afford to buy vegetables.
Like many petitioners, Wong has no home to return to. His home was demolished by real estate developers who, he says, colluded with the local government.
Wu Zhiyin is a farmer from eastern Jiangsu province. He rolls up his shirt to reveal a scar. He says it's a knife wound inflicted by his local party secretary's son two years ago. That's what Wu got for blowing the whistle on illegal local taxes. Despite it all, Wu believes that the country's leadership is on his side.
WU ZHIYIN: (Through translator)
KUHN: We farmers still have hope in Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, he explains, because they abolished the agriculture tax after taking office.
The government's cancellation of the agriculture tax last year is part of a larger effort to address the growing gap between urban rich and rural poor. President Hu and Premier Wen have appeared on national television making dumplings with farmers and helping rural laborers get paid. These gestures have struck a chord with many Chinese including petitioner Wu and created great expectations for social justice.
KUHN: Wu shares a poem he wrote about his quest for justice. The imagined ending goes something like this.
ZHIYIN: (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: We find Premier Wen Jiabao and then find President Hu Jintao, the president's order the Premier carries out, the corrupt officials are then caught, no doubt. The criminals are at last indicted and the people's wrongs are finally righted.
That would be nice, but the petitioners' hopes and the leaders' populism are both still rooted in a Chinese tradition of the rule of individual leaders, not the rule of law. That makes it likely that President Hu may return from Washington to find plenty of people waiting on his doorstep.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.