For 12 years, the dark blue police uniform has stayed in Tian Lan’s closet.

She held onto it after she was arrested for accusing two fellow officers of corruption, through beatings in interrogation and during a prison sentence that followed. She kept the uniform even as she lost her family and savings and began sleeping under a bridge.

The uniform reminds her, she said, of who she used to be — an enforcer of Chinese law — and what she has become — one of its many victims.

“I used to believe in the system, in its fairness,” said Tian, 56, who lives in a squalid village alongside hordes of others trying to appeal their cases in Beijing. “I was naive.”

China’s legal system is so broken that a separate government agency — called the petition system — has been set up just to handle the millions like Tian who flock to its cities each year, alleging abuse and begging for intervention.

Tian Lan, 57, a former police officer-turned-petitioner, goes through receipts for the money she had to borrow in the room she is renting in a petitioners' village in Beijing on Oct. 21. (Gilles Sabrié/For The Washington Post)

An appeal of last resort, the petition system draws China’s most desperate and bitter. The clearest-eyed among them include those who share Tian’s fall from official position — former judges, court officials and police officers, now reduced to hopeless rounds of petitioning. They know how China’s secretive legal system works but have experienced the painful ways in which it doesn’t. They describe a system in which arrests are arbitrary, prosecutions are motivated by special interests and court rulings are dictated by political leaders.

Distrust in the law has grown so widespread that China’s Communist Party leaders this fall announced sweeping judicial reforms after decades of dithering.

But accounts such as Tian’s, of abuses and legal disregard on multiple levels, suggest how difficult — perhaps impossible — it will be to change China’s deeply entrenched system.

A craving for justice

Tian used to believe that justice and the party went hand in hand. And in those hands, the law was like a sharp cleaver, starkly dividing the world into right and wrong.

Now she sees law and justice in China as elements of a vicious circle.

The more abuse you suffer, she said, the stronger your craving for justice becomes. The more you try to satisfy that craving, the more abuse you bring upon yourself.

She has joined a group of fellow officers-turned-petitioners. A dozen of them live with Tian in a village slum, about an hour’s drive from Beijing. They eat and sleep together in cramped, unheated rooms rented with money borrowed from relatives.

By day, they try in vain, like other petitioners, to plead their cases outside central government offices. By night, they hide from police sent by hometown authorities to hunt them down and haul them back.

There is Sang Dianpeng, 42, who carries pictures of the bruises he suffered after being accused of using excessive force against a man who was politically connected. Former constable Li Dawei, 52, recently rejoined the group after 11 years in prison for expressing sympathy for democracy activists. Another fixture is Liu Ming, a towering former station chief who was purged after offending superiors.

Among them, Tian has become a mother figure of sorts.

A compact woman with a round, sympathetic face, she often spearheads the group’s protests and contacts others when one is detained.

“Perhaps if I gave up my case years ago, I could have gotten another job, salvaged my life and family,” she said during a recent interview in the village. “But you cannot help who you are.”

The ‘dark underbelly’

Her parents were military officers who raised Tian with the belief that life’s highest calling was serving the motherland.

At age 20, Tian enlisted in the army, and nine years later she joined the police force of Handan, a city 300 miles south of Beijing.

For the next two decades, she taught procedural law and other courses to rookies. She rose to the rank of superintendent, in charge of department propaganda and planting glowing articles in local newspapers.

“But I was never involved in casework,” she said, “so I never saw the dark underbelly of the system.”

She blames that naivete for her decision in 2002 to help a man she knew who had been arrested in a neighboring jurisdiction by two police officers demanding ransom from his family.

She helped publish a short article that focused on the failure of the officers to give a receipt to the man’s relatives for the large sum they paid.

In the years since, dozens more accusations have emerged against the same two officers — Yang Junhai and Zheng Chengyue — with lengthy descriptions online of an arrest-for-ransom scheme for amounts ranging from $800 to $8,000.

But back in 2002, shortly after Tian’s article appeared, officers from Yang and Zheng’s jurisdiction — a place called Guangping County — stormed into Tian’s office and arrested her.

A copy of the indictment accuses her of five crimes, including making false accusations. Tian and her relatives said she was verbally charged with a sixth: leaking state secrets — a charge often tacked on to prevent detainees from seeing a lawyer.

During three months of detention, Tian said, the two officers personally took charge of her interrogation, beating her in the face, chest and stomach. She recalls Zheng screaming at her, “You work for police in Handan? That means nothing here. I am the boss here.”

Upon her release, Tian immediately reported her case to provincial authorities, who oversee both her department in Handan and her accusers’ in Guangping. Soon after, Guangping police responded by detaining her again.

Tian’s bosses tried to intervene, sparking a turf war of sorts between the two jurisdictions, Tian’s relatives said.

Court documents, however, suggest that what sealed Tian’s fate was not any damning evidence or arguments at trial, but the critical relationship between her accusers and those running local courts.

What Tian was struggling against, in others words, was China’s pervasive system of guanxi.

Powerful patrons

Guanxi is what Chinese call mutually beneficial relationships. Almost every branch of the Communist Party and government is a fiefdom built on guanxi. And perched atop each network is a powerful patron.

In Tian’s case, she and relatives say, the patron was a man named Feng Wenhai. Feng had for years overseen the province’s police and courts as head of the party’s politics and law committee.

The place where Feng began his career and built his network, records show, was Guangping County, the same jurisdiction of the two police officers Tian had accused.

Feng and the two officers declined calls for comment. Guangping police, courts, prosecutors and four other agencies also refused to comment on Tian’s case and her allegations of torture and legal interference.

But court records show Guangping County’s own prosecutors expressed concerns about Tian’s case, rejecting it twice over the absence of evidence and lack of jurisdiction.

Tian’s family tried to fight back through their own considerable connections in the military and party. It wasn’t until her sister, Tian Yan, reached a friend in China’s parliament that she realized how outmatched they were.

“My friend told me, ‘You need to distance yourself from Tian Lan. She has become an evil element in the eyes of many,’ ” her sister said.

Charged in Guangping, finally, with forging documents, Tian was tried, convicted and sentenced in quick succession.

Cutting family ties

After being released from prison a year later, Tian began the first of many appeals.

She also collected written statements from more than 30 residents who said they had been held for ransom by the same two officers and distributed them in government buildings as a self-published newspaper.

But the more she fought, the more she lost.

Her husband — a military officer — divorced her. Her father spent a small fortune paying for her legal appeals and died a few years ago bitterly angry.

Her son graduated from high school and began pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming an officer like his mother. He told Tian he planned to become a good cop to root out bad ones like those who imprisoned her.

But four years later, in his first job as an officer, his bosses made clear that Tian’s unending appeals and constant bad-mouthing of the legal system threatened to end his career, relatives said.

“They told him, ‘If you can’t get your mother to stop, you should quit your job now,’ ” Tian’s sister said.

Tian and her son met for the last time in 2006, both in tears. Tian agreed to cut all ties and communication to protect him. She wrote a notarized statement disowning him and sent it local authorities.

“From now on, I am not your mother and you are not my son,” Tian told him. “I’ve already suffered so much. I cannot drag you into it.”

On her own, Tian’s health quickly deteriorated. In the unheated room where she sleeps with eight other petitioners, Tian keeps stacks of red receipts by her bed — medical bills from doctors who have diagnosed her with breast cancer.

Despite three decades in the army and police, she has no health insurance because of her conviction. She pays for hospital visits by borrowing from relatives and relies on boiled medicinal herbs to treat symptoms.

For her, 2005 was a turning point, after higher courts refused to hear her case and her appeal reached an official dead end.

That’s when Tian — with no remaining recourse — began her harrowing journey into China’s legal dumping ground: its petition system.

Petitioners vs. police

To understand the unlikely nature of her transformation — from law officer to petitioner — one must understand the antagonism that separates the two.

Petitioners are ubiquitous in Beijing, cluttering the entryways of ministries and embassies. Those who are illiterate wear signs around their necks, on which they have paid others to write their grievances. Many lug sacks filled with legal records everywhere they go, foisting copies on anyone willing to take them.

Their natural enemies are the police officers sent from back home to prevent them from embarrassing local leaders in front of Beijing’s central government with stories of abuse and corruption.

That used to be the job of Liu, the former station chief who lives in Tian’s village. He and those under his command wielded words at first, then force if necessary, to drag petitioners back to Anhui province.

The stubbornness of petitioners always perplexed him, he said. After living as one of them, however, he said he finally understands their actions even in the face of arrests and beatings.

Liu has been captured and sent home by authorities seven times this year while petitioning.

On several occasions, those detaining him were former colleagues. Other times, they have been thugs hired by Anhui leaders.

During one of those detentions, he said, the hired thugs beat him so hard that at the end of a 12-hour car ride back to Anhui, an old colleague at the police station wept at his appearance.

Many begged him to give up his petitioning.

Liu said he responded with anger: “If you know it’s illegal to arrest me like this, why do you keep doing it?”

“We have no choice,” he was told. “If we don’t, they will just get others to do it.”

‘Wronged officers’ club

Tian and other former officials say they have found unexpected camaraderie among fellow petitioners.

When she first arrived in Beijing on a winter day nine years ago, Tian said, she had no clue how to live a petitioner’s life. Lacking money, she begged on the street for food.

Other petitioners taught her how to write a proper complaint and navigate the arcane petition system — comprising hundreds of offices in China, across various ministries as well as the party’s disciplinary arm.

Many told her that the best way to get paperwork submitted wasn’t waiting in line at those offices, but to get detained at one of Beijing’s politically sensitive sites. Plead your case, they suggested, at Tiananmen Square or Zhongnanhai — China’s equivalent of the White House.

Finding the group of former police officers, Tian said, has rekindled something she has missed for years: a sense of family. Members of the group pooled their money to help with her medical bills and often find lawyers for those seized by the police.

Many treat their group as a kind of police fraternity. They have printed up badges that identify them as “China’s Wronged Officers.”

They are also unusually strategic in the cat-and-mouse games all petitioners play in evading police.

When authorities detained hundreds of petitioners recently in Tian’s village ahead of the landmark announcement on legal reforms, a dozen from the Wronged Officers club avoided arrest by hiding in two rooms.

They made it look as if no one was inside by gluing newsprint to the windows and attaching a padlock outside the door from the inside, retracting the key through a concealed window.

During a foreign reporter’s visit, the group set up alternating shifts so each could be interviewed while others watched for authorities at nearby intersections.

Days later, however, in apparent retaliation for the secret interviews, Liu and another member, Zhuo Cong, were arrested on charges of “stirring up trouble.”

Lost causes

After years of such experiences, most in the group have come to realize their petitions are futile.

Statistics back up that conclusion. A study by a government-run think tank several years ago found that 0.2 percent of petitions get resolved.

For some petitioners, this realization pushes them to become full-fledged dissidents. For others, it leads to suicide.

Several in recent years have set themselves on fire in protest. Among farmers, a more common method is drinking pesticide.

Those who persist in petitioning sometimes become unhinged, muttering their grievances while roaming the streets of Beijing. Insanity is only natural, Tian said, after years of banging your head against the system.

In the 12 years since her arrest, the two police officers Tian accused of blackmail have been promoted again and again. Zheng has retired. Yang has become a high-ranking police chief.

Meanwhile, Tian has given up on trying to get justice. Instead, she said, she keeps fighting in hopes that her case combined with millions of others may one day nudge China’s legal system toward deeper change.

Her son, she points out, remains an officer in that system.

She has not talked to him since their last meeting eight years ago, keeping their agreement. But through her sister, she occasionally sneaks messages to him.

She said she tells him to avoid casework and to stick to technical jobs that keep his hands clean of corruption. And she asks him not to bully those he arrests.

Look at your mother, she says. In a legal system like China’s, how can you tell the guilty from the innocent?

Gu Jinglu and Xu Jing contributed to this report.