Authorities in Shanghai have detained a number of people pursuing complaints against the government, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership transition at its 18th Party Congress in Beijing.
Petitioners Shen Peilan and Han Zhongming were taken from their homes this week and held on charges of "disrupting public order," while a third protester, Chen Jianfang, was being held under similar charges after making a trip to Beijing during the Congress, an overseas rights group said.
Two other petitioners in the city, Cui Fufang and Tong Guojing, were each sentenced to one year's "re-education through labor" after they allegedly attended a memorial for the mother of fellow petitioner Wang Kouma, the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an e-mailed statement.
Wang is currently detained on suspicion of "creating a disturbance" at the Changning detention center, it said.
Fellow activist Chang Xiongfa said Wang's family feared he too would receive a sentence. "His family are very worried, and they're looking for a lawyer," Chang said.
"But lawyers are pretty hard to find in Shanghai, those that do real rights defense work, that is."
In addition, veteran rights activist Mao Hengfeng, who has already served a year in labor camp—during which she reported extensive torture—and been shut up in a psychiatric hospital for resisting the forced abortion of her unauthorized second child, was handed an 18-month labor camp sentence.
Mao was detained while on a trip to Beijing in late September, and charged with "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," CHRD said.
China has announced it will overhaul its official complaints system to treat the army of petitioners who besiege government offices annually with allegations of corruption, illegal evictions, and abuse of official power, including beatings, forced abortions and deaths in custody.
The growing number of petitioners at the gates of government in recent years is a reminder of the simmering unrest fueled by official misbehavior that outgoing president Hu Jintao warned the Party Congress on Thursday could threaten its grip on power.
Beijing authorities on Friday sent a group of 29 petitioners back to Shanghai after they tried to hand out leaflets about their grievances in Tiananmen Square, near the Great Hall of the People where the Congress is being held.
"Yesterday was the first day of the 18th Party Congress, and we were detained by the police," said petitioner Zhu Xiaolin, one of the group. "Now we have been dragged back home, and we don't know what sort of treatment we will get now."
Zhu said the group traveled back to Shanghai by train on Friday under the supervision of "interceptors," officials posted by regional governments in Beijing to round up and return disgruntled citizens.
She said the petitioners had no other way to make their grievances heard.
"We have been issued with a notice to end petitioning activities by our local government," Zhu said. "Now, we won't be able to go to any complaints department."
Petitioner Chen Yanyan said she had also handed out leaflets protesting official injustice on the Square.
"Our action was unsuccessful, because we had hoped to get as far as the Great Hall of the People," she said. "But the place is under a total security lockdown, with police every three paces."
"We couldn't get anywhere near it, and we were recognized by local government agents as soon as we got to Tiananmen," Chen added.
As the petitioners were being detained by police, President Hu was warning the Congress in his state-of-the-nation speech that the Communist Party could be brought down by public anger over corruption, and promising that the Party would carry out "reform of the political structure."
But political commentators called it a lip service to reform which they said had been heard before, and would result in no changes to the current system.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.