BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police on Thursday rounded up several dozen evicted home owners who planned to make a bold protest march to the nerve-center of the country's communist leadership.
The motley group of around 70 Beijingers, mostly elderly and middle aged, offered no challenge to well-prepared security forces who swept down before they had even set off, Reuters witnesses said.
But as economic turmoil stokes discontent across the country, their audacious attempt to submit a letter directly to populist Premier Wen Jiabao is likely to alarm China's rulers.
The heavily guarded Zhongnanhai compound, a modern Forbidden City that has been home to generations of communist leaders, has long been a risky magnet to people with grievances.
One of the largest protests was by the now-banned Falun Gong group which marshaled over 10,000 followers in 1999.
Their dramatic sit-in unnerved a government obsessed with stability. Beijing soon outlawed Falun Gong, labeled it an evil cult, and cracked down on anyone who refused to renounce it.
Han Xiaofeng, an unemployed 47 year-old who helped plan Thursday's protest, told Reuters he was not afraid.
The group says they were cheated of their homes by corrupt officials who said the land was needed for the Beijing Olympic Games, but then used it to build a luxury housing complex.
"Even if we are arrested, I'm not worried. There are people in this country who care," he said.
Han used to rent out rooms, but since his home was confiscated he has been forced to earn a living picking through rubbish for waste that can be sold to recycling firms, he said.
"ONLY OUT FOR A STROLL"
Taking a leaf from middle-class professionals who have in the past two years successfully derailed a high-tech train project and forced a petrochemical plant to shift location, the mostly working-class protesters said they were only "out for a stroll."
They did not carry banners, or shout slogans.
"I'm just out walking, what is illegal about that?" Han asked a plainclothes policeman who cordoned off the group.
Most of the protesters were shepherded into the National Library and then taken to a police station. A few made it to Zhongnanhai but were told to get in a police van and driven off.
Protests about land turned over to development are common in rural areas, where corruption sometimes runs rampant and farmers deprived of their fields feel they have little left to lose.
But many Beijingers have also suffered in the scrabble to remake China's capital over the past two decades, evicted by unscrupulous developers, cheated of compensation, or paid so little they can afford only poor substitutes for former homes.
Han said he and more than 1,000 other families from their corner of the city's relatively prosperous eastern Chaoyang district are among those victims.
Some were given just 2,500 yuan ($366) for each square meter of their low-rise courtyard homes, while others were still waiting for compensation, said protester Wang Jingmei.
Chaoyang authorities declined immediate comment.
Many of the protesters say they are living in basements, tiny rented rooms, or squeezed in with friends and relatives, while the high-rise apartments that replaced their homes are selling for as much as 8,000 yuan ($1,170) per square meter, Wang said.
The group went to complain to city authorities last December, but said they were laughed at by officials. When the office closed and they refused to leave, they said two women were assaulted.
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Nick Macfie)