BEIJING China's Premier Wen Jiabao met ragged farmers and workers decrying land grabs, unpaid wages and other complaints, official media reported on Tuesday, in an unusually public show of worry about discontent with the government.
Wen's meeting on Monday with the "petitioners" came days after President Barack Obama pressed his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, over limits on the rights of Chinese citizens to speak up against the ruling Communist Party.
Millions of petitioners visit government offices across China every year to demand redress and are often treated by officials as an embarrassing nuisance, even a threat to control, despite rules that say they should be given a hearing.
People with complaints are often held in a government-run center in Beijing to be sent home, or detained in illicit "black jails".
Wen has won widespread public affection in China by casting himself as a servant of the people, and he pressed that role again by meeting people who journeyed to Beijing to demand a hearing from central officials at a special petitions office.
State television news showed Wen surrounded by anxious-looking officials as he heard the complaints.
"Please don't hold anything back, and give me the facts," Wen told the people, according to a report on the central government's website (www.gov.cn).
"Our government is a government of the people, and our power is granted by the people," he said, according to the report.
"Starting with resolving specific problems, we have to promote studying ways to resolve widespread problems with policies, institutions and our work," he added.
China's leaders sometimes participate in heavily controlled, or even staged, encounters with citizens used in official propaganda to promote the message that they are heeding concerns.
But Wen's meeting with petitioners amounted to an unusually blunt acknowledgement that China's feverish economic growth had also brought discontent, especially over land confiscations, harsh work conditions and scant support for the many poor people.
"This may be the first time a central leader has done this. Even minor officials usually stay away from us," Liu Anjun, a veteran petitioner in Beijing who has run a support group for complainants, told Reuters.
"It may be staged, but it's a signal to people," he said of Wen's visit.
"It may be related to Hu Jintao's visit to the United States, which strengthened the focus on human rights. The petitioners reflect all the most basic human rights problems in China, and Wen may want to show that at least he's concerned," said Liu.
The petitioners heard by Wen included a stall holder whose property was demolished, farmers whose land was confiscated and homes demolished for development, and a coal miner disabled in an accident in 2002 who complained of scant compensation.
Such problems are widespread in China, and disputes over land grabs are the most common spark of protests. But these cases are now likely to receive swift attention from officials.
"Respect the opinions of farmers, give them reasonable compensation, and protect their rights," said Wen.
Last week, after a White House summit with Obama, China's Hu defended his government, but said a lot still needed to be done in terms of human rights.
Wen survived the ousting of his reformist boss Zhao Ziyang after a pro-democracy movement was crushed in 1989, and has stood out as the top official most forthright about the long-sensitive issues of political reform.
Last year, he said the government must rein in abuses or risk sacrificing the gains of growth to "regression and stagnation".
Wen will retire as premier in early 2013. (Editing by Robert Birsel)