Authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan detained and beat up local rights activists for fear they would try to meet with U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, who is on the last leg of a "soft power" visit to China, activists said on Tuesday.
Sichuan-based rights group Tianwang said policemen and plainclothes officers beat up a group of land protesters on the streets of the provincial capital Chengdu, before dragging them to a police station.
The attack came as Obama arrived in Chengdu on Tuesday with her mother and two daughters following stops in Beijing and Xi'an as part of a seven-day visit to China.
The petitioners are villagers who lost their homes or farmland in land grabs and forced demolitions by the government and local property developers, according to the 64 Tianwang rights group website.
Petitioner Yang Xiulan confirmed the report, in an interview with RFA's Cantonese Service.
"We were just walking along the street, and some police came and ... beat us up," Yang said.
"They put us in their vehicle and drove us back to Shuangliu county patrol headquarters," she said, referring to the petitioners' home county, on the outskirts of Chengdu.
Asked if the incident was linked to Obama's visit, Yang replied: "That's right, they were [afraid we would petition her]."
A second petitioner in Yang's group, Chen Hong, lost consciousness in the attack, according to Tianwang.
The group, which also included fellow petitioners Jiang Mei and Yan Tafeng, was attacked at around 11:30 a.m. local time as they were about to board a bus near Chengdu's Jiuyan bridge, it said.
Fellow Shuangliu county activist Chen Guoqiong said she had suffered a similar attack on Tuesday, but by unidentified men wearing no uniform.
"They detained us and brought us to a police station," Chen, also in the process of complaining over land grabs in Shuangliu county, said by cellphone from inside the police station on Tuesday.
"If you try to petition, they ... send people to follow you, and they they take away your freedom," said Chen.
Chen said she was with a group of eight people at the time, including Wang Hongyan, Wu Suqiong, and Lu Xiuqing. Tianwang said Yuan Zhongxiu and Zhuang Fuying were also detained in the same group.
She said the group had done nothing to break the law, nor to deserve a violent attack by the government.
She said those detained alongside her had had their cell phones turned off by police.
Tianwang founder and veteran activist Huang Qi said the authorities had taken a number of local activists on "forced vacation" ahead of Obama's two-day visit to Chengdu, where she, her mother and two daughters are scheduled to visit a panda sanctuary and eat in a Tibetan restaurant.
"Chinese people can't get their grievances resolved, so they are forced to approach foreign leaders to defend their rights," Huang said.
"Back when vice-president Joe Biden came to Sichuan in 2011 with [president] Xi Jinping, some people tried to petition him, and were detained and beaten up," he said.
"Officials told the petitioners that they shouldn't try to wash their dirty laundry in public."
Obama on Tuesday visited a high school in Chengdu, conveying the first family's condolences to the families of the passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, official Chinese media reported.
Earlier in her visit, a tour guide collapsed at the Terracotta Warriors exhibit in the northern city of Xi'an after a beating from police who were clearing crowds from the site ahead of Obama's visit, Tianwang reported.
At the start of her tour, Obama defended Internet freedom, telling a crowd at Beijing University's Stanford Center that freedom of information is crucial to innovation.
"It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media," she said. "Because that's how we discover the truth, that's how we learn what's really happening in our communities, in our country and our world."
But she made no direct reference to the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, which limits what Chinese Internet users can see online.
Obama began her China visit last Thursday, at the invitation of Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping, and is scheduled to leave on Wednesday.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.