Police are holding at least 14 rights activists on public order charges as the ruling Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly congress began this week, rights activists said.
The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which compiles reports from rights groups inside China, said most of the detainees are being held under criminal detention on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" amid a nationwide "stability maintenance" crackdown across the country.
However, many more are being held under administrative detention or house arrest, or are being forced to go on out-of-town "vacations" with a police escort, while still others are being visited by police, or warned not to post sensitive messages on social media platforms.
The charge of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" has been widely used by police as a pretext for incarcerating government critics, CHRD said.
Even posting comments or sharing information online that is considered "sensitive" can lead to a person being targeted for such measures, since a 2013 Supreme People’s Court interpretation defining the internet as a public space that can be "disrupted" by speech, the group said.
Among those under criminal detention are Beijing-based petitioners Li Xuehui, Wang Xiuying and Wang Fengxian, all in connection with the posting of a video mocking President Xi Jinping. They are reportedly being held in the Shijingshan Detention Center, CHRD said.
However, local rights activist Ma Xinli told RFA that Wang Xiuying may be alone in the apartment.
"I'm guessing that the old lady Wang Xiuying is still in the apartment," Ma said after going around to the family home to check on their fate. "Her hearing is none too good because she's in her eighties, and she wouldn't have been able to hear me."
"As for Wang Fengxian, it's hard to say; I don't think she's there, and she may well have been detained."
Also in Beijing, rights lawyer Yu Wensheng was called in for a "chat" with officials from the local justice bureau. When contacted by RFA on Thursday, he declined to comment.
Torture and unjust incarcerations
Yu's wife Xu Yanze said the "chat" took around three hours. "The regular police and the state security police were all present, too," she said. "I think it was definitely to do with that article he wrote."
Yu had penned an open letter calling on the government to do something to halt the rapid deterioration in China's human rights situation, including the rise of torture and unjust incarcerations.
"The Communist Party talks about freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law, but in reality China has [none of those things]," the letter said. "Instead, we have a rich and powerful elite that is corrupt throughout."
Elsewhere in China, Henan petitioner Liu Minjie was detained while petitioning over the execution of his son outside the Supreme People’s Court last month, while singer-songwriters Xu Lin and Liu Sifang are being held in Nansha and Jiangxi respectively after they wrote songs together about late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, CHRD said.
Meanwhile, Jiangxi activist Yang Wei, also known as Yang Tingjian, is being held at Zixi County Detention Center in the southeastern province of Fujian. He had tried last year to stand as an independent candidate in elections to his local People's Congress.
And Anhui-based Christian believer Wu Kemu was taken away by police on Oct. 12 after he made frequent comments critical of government officials’ abuse of power on social media. He is being held in the Xuancheng Detention Center.
In the southern province of Guangdong, rights activist Li Xiaoling was formally arrested on Sept. 12. She is being held at the Zhuhai No. 1 Detention Center.
Many petitioners, ordinary Chinese who have pursued long-running grievances through official channels, have been caught by "interceptors" from their hometowns and forcibly returned under escort, they told RFA.
"I was forcibly brought back because of the stability maintenance measures," Liaoning petitioner Zhang Chunting said on Thursday. "They were afraid that I would go to Tiananmen Square or [government headquarters in] Zhongnanhai."
"I am being held against my will in an old people's home; I've been here for about 10 days now," Zhang said.
Petitioners pinned down
Fellow Liaoning petitioner Hou Meide said he and his wife had been stopped at the railway station as they tried to buy tickets for Beijing.
"They stopped us as soon as we arrived at the ticket hall inside the station," Hou said. "This happened three or four times."
"They checked out ID and they saw that we are petitioners who have a record of petitioning in Beijing," he said. "They could see this as soon as they scanned our ID."
In the southwestern region of Guangxi, Baihutou village land rights activist Xu Kun said that more than a dozen people have been keeping watch outside his home since Oct. 9.
"They started work on Oct. 9, and there have been people watching me here ever since," Xu told RFA. "They come twice a day, and they take photos around my home."
"They come very early in the morning, at 5.00 or 6.00 a.m., and they surround the gate of my home, blocking it off," he said. "There are a lot of them here today, three carloads of them."
Xu said he had tried phoning the police, but had elicited no response.
According to CHRD, police in the southwestern city of Chengdu have also taken away rights activist Li Yu, whose current whereabouts are unknown.
"The policemen came from Deyang, Sichuan, Li’s home county, where presumably he was taken," it said.
For several years now, Li has hosted an online group, the Jiaoma Club, where activists gather to share information and comments on current events and organize advocacy activities, it said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.