In March 1997, Jia Hongling was raped by a low-level manager of a mining company in Henan Province. The 28-year-old daughter of a farmer and a construction worker, Jia reported the sexual assault to the police in her hometown of Jiyuan in central China.
That July, the policeman assigned to investigate her allegations invited Jia to a room and then, with two men standing watch outside, raped her, according to Jia's account.
It took Jia eight years of filing complaints in Jiyuan and making trips to Beijing to beg for justice before the first man was sentenced to five years in prison. The policeman in the second incident, however, was never brought to trial -- despite a report from the Jiyuan prosecutor's office saying there was "strong evidence" a rape had occurred.
Now 42, Jia still travels to Beijing, lining up at one government office after another to submit forms that she knows probably will just be forwarded back to the Jiyuan city government. Wearing an orange waist pack and lugging a paper bag stuffed with documents that outline her grievances -- there was also a wage dispute with a state-owned printing factory -- Jia has joined the unknown number of petitioners who converge on China's capital to seek redress.
A pilgrimage of sorts, petitioning is a ritual with ties to imperial times. Today, it is a journey marked largely by futility, emblematic of the distance between official talk of addressing the country's social ills and the reality of life in China for those who don't have the right connections.
Among China's 1.3 billion people, the number of petitioners is relatively small. But their stories are a reminder that in spite of China's economic progress, its central government has so far been unwilling to enact legal and political reforms that would allow ordinary citizens to challenge officials or their allies.
It is not unusual when people file a complaint against officials at the local petitioning office, as they are legally entitled to do, for the bureau to refer them to the very officials involved in the disputes.
If they then take the complaint to Beijing, their files are often again sent to their home officials. At that point, police or hired security guards are sometimes ordered to find the "troublemakers" and haul them home.
For those who persist in petitioning after being told by local officials to stop, retribution can involve labor camps or psychiatric wards.
The document from the Jiyuan prosecutor's office noted that Jia was committed to a psychiatric ward for paranoid personality disorder, and seemed to lament that "when she was discharged from hospital, she still wouldn't stop petitioning."