BEIJING — As his government continued to wage a crackdown on calls for protest rallies, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Saturday pledged to rein in corruption, economic inequality and a host of other problems at the root of widespread frustrations in China.
Speaking at the opening of the National People's Congress, a largely ceremonial political body, Wen acknowledged that Chinese leaders "have not yet fundamentally solved a number of issues that the masses feel strongly about."
While the online announcements of gatherings across China have so far resulted in little or no turnout, they've clearly angered an authoritarian regime that subsequently hauled away dozens of activists, summoned foreign journalists for videotaped conversations and, on the days designated for protests, deployed overwhelming numbers of police.
An editorial in Saturday's edition of the Beijing Daily, a state newspaper, punctuated the government's concerns about people "with ulterior motives" trying to "incite unrest."
Wen pointed to the nation's forthcoming five-year plan, a comprehensive growth strategy, as being crucial for both sustaining economic growth and offering a way forward for tangled matters ranging from rule of law to inflation.
But just a short ride from the Great Hall of the People where Wen spoke, there was evidence to suggest that many of the issues the prime minister said "cause great resentment among the masses" are ongoing and deeply ingrained.
At the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, a line of people were standing on the sidewalk outside, holding stacks of documents they wanted to submit to the government's petitions office.
One group, who'd traveled from the surrounding province of Hebei, began describing the difficulties they'd had with corrupt officials.
"The government took our land away," said Wu Quanxiang, 68, who said he'd had no luck with either his local government or Beijing's in getting his farm back.
Fan Shuqin, 57, said she'd borrowed money to buy vegetable greenhouses from nearby government offices and when they turned out to be shoddily made, "the local officials said they didn't care."
Liu Xinyi, 48, stepped forward and said that after his village leader learned he hadn't vote for him in local elections, his government social welfare payments were cut off.
As more petitioners began to tell their stories, a young man in a black jacket walked up and yelled for them to stop talking. Accompanied by three other men, he snatched people by the arms and pushed them away.
A policeman came over and after checking a McClatchy reporter's credentials said it was ok for the interviews to continue.
The men responded by hollering even louder and trying to drag a translator working with the reporter down the street. It wasn't clear whether the men were plainclothes police or security guards employed by provincial authorities to prevent people from airing complaints about hometown grievances.
The policeman, looking a bit nervous, first tried to intercede and then walked off, leaving the men in control of the crowd.
One of them noticed a copy of Wen's speech being carried by the translator and, apparently mistaking it for a petitioner's statement, demanded it be handed over.
Told what the document was, the man in plainclothes said that he didn't care and snapped "Give it to me!"
The reporter and translator eventually got away, but not before seeing the first man in plainclothes approach a witness to the scene, a woman holding several shopping bags, and shoving her around as he yelled "Are you not Chinese? Why are you following them?"
During his speech less than two hours earlier, Wen had singled out the petitions process as an important one.
"We will strengthen the work related to the handling of petitioners' letters and visits," said Wen, who'd made a highly publicized trip to the complaints bureau in January.
After Wen's address, the National People's Congress delegates who stopped for reporters said they were upbeat about their government's plans for the future.
"Premier Wen's speech gave many details about improving people's lives," said Zhang Qing, a university professor from the coastal province of Jiangsu.
Zhang acknowledged that "as the economy develops, there will be more contradictions in society," but said he had a lot of confidence in China's ability to handle the situation.
Ma Hucheng, a lawyer from the western province of Qinghai, agreed.
"It's only when law and morality work closely together," Ma said, "that a country can have a long, peaceful life."
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