A group of villagers from Fujian province found out the hard way that they no longer can petition the central government for help directly.
They had travelled 2,000km from Kukeng Ziran village to Beijing and waited in line for two full days only to be told, "Go home".
Reforms that took effect from May 1 to streamline the bloated and ineffectual petition system no longer allow a Chinese citizen to "leapfrog" their grievances to the central government.
Petitions must make their way step-by-bureaucratic-step - township, county, city and provincial level - to the Chinese capital before the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the organ that handles petitions, looks into the matter.
Petitions can also be submitted online. In the case of Kukeng Ziran, with a population of only 230, the construction of an expressway was encroaching into the villagers' farmland. They had asked to be resettled but local officials were indifferent to their plea.
Said one of the village representatives, Mr Hu Beixiong: "But it is the local government that is against us, so how can we petition them?" Until this year, about six million people from across China would make their way to Beijing annually with grievances over land grabs, labour disputes and official abuse of power. The practice was a unique facet of Chinese governance that dates back to the legendary Justice Bao Qingtian, the Song dynasty judge known for sticking up for the common man.
But it has long broken down - surveys say only two in 1,000 petitions are successful - and its existence repudiates the rule of law in Chinese society, according to experts.
It thrives, watchers argue, only because of China's weak legal structures and corrupt and ineffectual grassroots governance.
Cognizant of its failings - and the sight of large numbers of petitioners camping outside the office in southwestern Beijing - the central government has consistently tried to reduce the number of petitioners without appearing callous to ordinary Chinese.
For years, it ranked local governments according to the number of petitions against them; some officials responded by nabbing and detaining petitioners en route to Beijing.
State media have already lauded the success of the reforms, which saw the number of petitioners entering Beijing fall by 56.4 per cent in the first month, Xinhua news agency said.
That the system needs reform is not in dispute, say experts, who are unanimous in dismissing the figure. It can only be reformed when the factors that push Chinese to "seek the emperor" are dealt with, they argue.
"If the reform is just about pushing down the numbers at the top, in that case, of course it is successful," said prominent human rights lawyer Yuan Yulai. "But the problem is not at the top, but at the bottom. Any reform is pointless if the grassroots problem is not fixed." When villagers disagree with local officials, they have two options: the legal process or the petitions process. The former should be the only option in a developed, law-abiding society, say experts.
"In disputes, judges should issue a verdict based on strict adherence to the rule of law," said Renmin University law professor Hu Jinguang. "But at the moment, the conditions for this are not in place... so villagers do not follow the legal route but go to the central government."
As local officials usually control local courts, the courts either refuse to accept the suits that villagers file, or they invariably rule against them, said villagers. Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan said the more fundamental problem is poor governance at the local level, where officials have no incentive to improve their villagers' lives or compromise with them over disputes.
"The solution is to have officials be directly responsible for their people. The only way to realise this is real elections at the local level," he said.
Until that happens, the Kukeng Ziran villagers find themselves running out of options.
"We are going back to petition the local government as we have no choice," said their representative, Mr Hu. "But we know that on this issue, only the central government can help us. We just have to wait."
Meanwhile, construction of the expressway continues in their village.
This article was first published on July 27 2014.
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