After closing down some 'black jails' ahead of the Chinese New Year festivities, the authorities have once more begun rounding up and detaining petitioners in Beijing and Shanghai.
Xiao Qingshan, who arrived in Beijing on Thursday from the southern province of Guangdong to complain about farmland sold for development, said he and some 50 fellow protesters had been detained on Tiananmen Square shortly after they got there.
Xiao, who was speaking from detention at the Majialou detention center on the outskirts of Beijing, said some people were carrying placards, while others were telling passers-by about the situation in their village.
"A lot of policemen came, and they pretended to check our IDs," he said. "I was still shouting slogans, and several policemen pinned me down. When I resisted, they were very rough, and wouldn't allow me to make a sound."
"There was an older activist among us and he was injured when they beat him."
In a separate incident, a group of around 300 petitioners was detained in downtown Beijing near the Wangfujing shopping district in a similar protest.
Shen Lixiu, who was part of the protest, said the group had been surrounded by large numbers of police, and forced to board buses, which took them to another detention center at Jiujingzhuang.
"A lot of police came to the scene, and rounded up all the petitioners," Shen said. "I thought things weren't right, so I left."
"Some petitioners managed to run away, or take cover. The rest were taken to Jiujingzhuang," he said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Shanghai detained around a dozen people after they traveled to Beijing to wish the new leadership under president-in-waiting Xi Jinping a prosperous Year of the Snake.
The group, all of whom are currently pursuing complaints against their local government officials, were detained after being brought back to Shanghai by local officials on Thursday, fellow activists said.
"A number of petitioners from Shanghai were brought back by train from Beijing," said petitioner Gu Guoping. "They wanted to wish the new leadership, Xi Jinping and [premier-in-waiting] Li Keqiang, a happy new year."
"When they got back to Shanghai they were all taken to the police station, where the police are talking to them, and are going to detain them," Gu said.
One of the petitioners, Xie Qingguo, spoke to RFA briefly by phone.
"I have just got to the police station, and they are getting ready to detain me," Xie said. "They have produced a disciplinary notice from the Beijing police department."
"I asked them what law I had broken and they said I went to 'illegal' places like Zhongnanhai," he said, referring to the ruling Communist Party's Beijing headquarters.
"I said if Xi Jinping can wish the whole nation a prosperous new year, then why can't I wish him one?"
New Year roundups
China's petitioners, many of whom sleep rough in the underpasses of the capital as they attempt to complain against government wrongdoing, are frequently the target of official roundups and harassment at Chinese New Year.
A Jilin petitioner surnamed Liu, who spent Chinese New Year in Beijing, said he saw a crowd of 500-600 petitioners outside Beijing's southern railway station on Saturday.
"They told me they were going to Premier Wen Jiabao's residence to wish him a happy new year," Liu said. "They said they hoped the premier would help them with their complaints, but I don't think that's going to work."
While they complain of being stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by the authorities, China's petitioners are nonetheless making use of a legal and official channel for complaints and grievances; the "letters and visits" system.
Initially established in 1951, the petitioning system was reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
China says it receives between 3 million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, on average.
However, many petitioners say they have been pursuing grievances, which are often linked to acts of violence by police or officials, forced evictions and loss of farmland, for decades with no result.
Beijing-based rights activist Liu Anjun said most petitioners would like to see a more democratic form of government in China.
"Right now, the rights activists and petitioners, the democracy activists, are all hoping for a good leader, who will want to democratize the country," he said.
"Everyone wants to experience what it is to have the rights and mentality of a citizen, and to exercise those rights to supervise and curb [the government], and to make it serve their needs."
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.