One of the most significant signs of China's new uncertain social freedoms-- the unprecedented presence of tens of thousands of derelicts camping on Peking streets-- has suddenly become the focus of intense government attention.
The official People's Daily announced yesterday that more than a thousand officials have been specially detailed to take up the derelicts' grievances and get them quickly out of town.
The government has also taken the unusual step of officially endorsing most of the derelicts' complaints against local officials but interviews today with several of those camping here indicates the social crisis they represent is far from over.
"Nobody has received us. Ue've been here for days," said one Peking woman in a crowd in front of the municipal headquarters.
She and others whom the Chinese call petitioners said the official press announcements had given them some hope, but the lack of immediate government action had persuaded them to demonstrate at the city government's main door rather than go to the petitioners' entrance they are supposed to use.
Longtime residents here estimate that tens of thousands of people without permanent residence are here, many of them former residents of the capital who were forced to leave during the political tumult of the late 1960s knoun as the Cultural Revolution.
In the last year of Peking's alternate loosening and tightening of social restraints, less restrictive policies have tended to generate more public demonstrations and more government unease and debate.
The People's Daily quoted a private statement by Communist Party Chairman Hua Goufeng last January that "the majority of the petitioners are good men." But the paper added that "those who make trouble to promote their personal interests or intentionally disrupt the social order . . . should be brought to justice."
The government has spoken of 6,000 petitioners but this appears to refer to only a minority who have found space in official shelters for the derelicts, such as the huge camp set up near Peking's Yung Dingmen railway station.
"I keep alive by begging," said one derelict, Zhang Yulo, 23. He said his family was forced to leave Peking in the 1960s because his grandfather had been a rich peasant, then considered a bad class label. Such labels were dropped several months ago, "but no officials will listen to my case," Zhang said.
Yang Jingshan, selling plastic drinking glass holders outside the Peking railroad station, was the only petitioner interviewed today to say the new government effort had reached him.
"I've got a letter and they've accepted my case. They will be going back with me soon," he said. Yang, 37, said he was approached by officials at the Yung Dingmen station camp where he lives.
Yang said he had come all the way from Sichuan in the far southwest 20 days ago. He had been to the state council, the Public Security Ministry and other offices to get help in locating his 13-year-old son, whom he suspects has been kidnaped by relatives of a man Yang helped send to prison.
Yang, head of the military affairs office at his commune, also wants $54-- about two months pay for the average city worker-- for medical fees and back pay which has been denied him in a bureaucratic wrangle.
The Chinese government's new attention to the petitioners' complaints appears to have grown out of a series of sit-down demonstrations organized by petitioners in front of the entrance to the top government compound at Zhongnanhai in the center of Peking.
Police eventually coaxed the sit-down demonstrators to accept government promises of action. It was one of a number of recent examples of restraint by Chinese security officials, who earned a black mark for the suppression of a mass riot here in April 1976.
Peking authorities may also be anxious to have the city look its best as the national day holiday, Oct. 1, approaches. Visitors arriving by train see dozens of petitioners crowding the sidewalks trying to support themselves selling glass holders or small pins and calendars.
The Chinese authorities' cleanup effort also appears to have pushed the de-emphasis of the words of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung a little further. Some large billboards with his political slogans have been painted over with murals promoting traffic safety.
The government announcement on derelicts said:
"The officials will explain the relevant party and government policies to the petitioners, inquire into their conditions and accompany them back to their places of origin to help local party and government departments solve their problems."
It quoted Hua as saying, "Some localities and departments adopt a policy of arresting, scaring and tricking these petitioners. This is entirely wrong."
The difficulties of solving cases involving dozens of bureaucrats, some to blame for the original complaints, appear to have bogged down many cases and kept Peking's sidewalks filled with petitioners despite efforts to discourage them.
The People's Daily acknowledged that "some 70 to 80 percent of the petitioners now in Peking are here for the second or third time."
In front of the Peking municipal building, Liang Jihang, 36, a truck driver, said he thought he had his problems solved, but "a long tail of it remains."
He was assigned to a state farm in 1966, but the farm dissolved and, with no other place to go, he asked to return to Peking.
The Public Security Ministry recently granted his request, "but now the housing department officials who must give me a residence permit won't help me because they are offended that the public security officials are making them handle my case."