Kenneth Roth, executive director of the group Human Rights Watch, says his organization's research into the Chinese petitioning system offers a unique insight into the problems ordinary Chinese people are facing.
"One of the big things they were complaining about is police abuse and police violence, encountered by themselves or family members. There were many complaints about forced eviction," he said. "There were many complaints about the failure of the court system to provide adequate redress and there were also complaints about retaliation for the petitioning, so the mere fact of petitioning gives rise to new grievances which leads to the needs for further petitioning."
Mr. Roth made the comments Thursday as he unveiled the group's latest report on China in Hong Kong.
China's petitioning system is a centuries-old tradition that began in imperial times.
Instead of bringing their grievances to the emperor, ordinary Chinese now often stage sit-ins in front of Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound where China's leaders live and work, or bring their complaints to national petition offices.
Thousands come to Beijing each year to seek redress for grievances. Most are from rural areas and have little education and few resources. Frustrated with the lack of action in their home provinces, and often harassed by local officials, the petitioners see coming to the capital as a last resort.
But Mr. Roth says very few are successful in getting their problems resolved.
"By contrast, fully 50 percent of them had experienced retaliation because of their petitioning. And they had been beaten or imprisoned or something of that sort," explained Mr. Roth. "Nineteen percent had been subjected to re-education through labor because of their petitioning."
Mr. Roth says local officials, who want to stop residents from their area from filing complaints in the capital, are responsible for much of the violence against petitioners.
Fearing their own records will be tarnished in the eyes of national authorities, local officials send "retrievers" - security officers - to force petitioners to return home, where they are often imprisoned.
Mr. Roth says the police in Beijing not only turns a blind eye to the abuse, they often raid the shantytowns where petitioners live and hand them over to the retrievers.
Worried that the vast number of frustrated petitioners coming to Beijing could become radicalized, the Chinese government implemented reforms in May. The new regulations say they should not be beaten up or imprisoned for the mere fact of petitioning.
But Human Rights Watch says the reforms have done little to restrain the retrievers and their abuses.