Authorities have detained dozens of people who converged on Beijing to pursue grievances against the ruling Chinese Communist Party ahead of the country's annual parliamentary sessions in early March, with some saying they fear they are being traced via their cell phones.
An estimated 70 petitioners from across China were detained as they tried to gather for a traditional meal of dumplings to celebrate the Chinese lantern festival, which falls 12 days after Chinese New Year, detainees said.
The would-be festive gathering in a karaoke hall near the southern railway station in Beijing was raided on Sunday by plainclothes and regular police, according to Beijing petitioner surnamed Li.
"I was unwilling to produce my ID because I hadn't committed any crime," Li said in an interview on Monday. "Then they turned nasty and one of them even kicked me."
She said the petitioners were taken to the local police station for questioning.
"They were writing down my details, and they even tried to threaten me, saying I was suspected of taking part in an illegal gathering," Li said. "They said I should take legal responsibility for the things I said."
"They also wanted to know who organized [the event]."
A petitioner from the northern province of Shaanxi surnamed Lu said he was taken to the Jiujingzhuang detention center on the outskirts of Beijing after being questioned.
"After they had taken my statement, they took me to Jiujingzhuang at 2.00 a.m.," Lu said. "Then, at about 11.00 a.m., some representatives of my hometown in Beijing came to meet me, and they will be sending me back home any time now."
He said police were stepping up efforts to rid the capital of people pursuing complaints ahead of the National People's Congress (NPC) parliamentary sessions next month.
"In Jiujingzhuang, they told me that the parliamentary sessions are nearly here, so they wanted us to go back home."
A third petitioner, who declined to give her name, said she had been told that local representatives of towns and cities across China had also begun heading to Beijing to deal with an anticipated boom in complaints ahead of the NPC.
"All the petitioners from outside Beijing are really worried and frightened, because they are saying that the interceptors are coming from all over China, just to detain them and take them back home," she said.
"Or they might even put them under house arrest."
She said a number of petitioners were hiding out in various locations in a bid to evade the interceptors, with some even throwing away their cell phones in case they were used to trace their location.
Li said she suspected her cell phone was being tapped.
"My phone isn't working normally," she said. "I got a text message of 6-8 digits, but no words."
"I think the purpose of this text was to track my location."
After emptying some "black jails" like Jiujingzhuang ahead of the Chinese New Year festivities, the authorities have once more begun rounding up and detaining petitioners in preparation for the NPC meetings, which traditionally attract large numbers of people hoping to win redress for their complaints.
While they frequently report being ignored by complaints bureaus, 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.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.