FOUR protesters in Beijing cut off their fingertips and swallowed them in a desperate bid to bring attention to their cause.

The men, from the central province of Hunan, travelled to the capital to seek resolution of a dispute with their former employer, who they claim sacked them on trumped-up charges, the official Global Times newspaper said.

They gathered at Tsinghua University, one of the nation’s most highly regarded, on Sunday and rested their hands on books on the pavement, the report said.

Then, in front of hundreds of bystanders, each in turn held a cleaver and brought it down, cutting the tops off their little fingers and swallowing the severed tips, it added.

“I felt so calm doing that, as we have been driven from pillar to post,” Li Bo, one of the men, said.

The four have since been seized by police and forced out of Beijing, the report said.

The case highlights the desperate measures some people in China will take to bring attention to grievances that have been ignored by local governments or courts.

Over the past year, some protesters have even set themselves on fire and died to prevent their houses or businesses from being demolished, in cases that have shocked the nation.

According to Li, the electric power bureau in Hunan’s Yongzhou city fired the four in December 2008 on charges of absenteeism, which he says were wrong.

They tried to have their case heard at the city’s committee for labour disputes, which rebuffed them, claiming they had never worked for the electricity bureau.

Last month they filed a lawsuit against their former employer but a court in Hunan rejected it, the report said.

Li alleged the four had also received death threats from local government officials in Hunan, and after all legal avenues were exhausted, they decided to come to Beijing as a last resort.

Under a system dating from imperial times, Chinese people can petition government authorities in Beijing over injustices or unresolved disputes.

However, many such petitioners complain of official unresponsiveness to their concerns, while others report being detained by authorities and kicked out of the capital to be sent home.