Several hundred inmates of a large but unofficial detention center on the outskirts of Beijing broke out of the compound early Friday in protest at their treatment over Chinese New Year.
The petitioners stood outside the Majialou detention center and sang "The Internationale" after the breakout, saying they could no longer tolerate being kept in such a crowded place with no water to drink and not enough food to eat, participants and eyewitnesses said.
"We couldn't stand it, and we all got angry and forced our way out," petitioner Wang Yan, who took part in the breakout, told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"There was no water to drink, no quilts, and the air was terrible, and we couldn't sleep. We were hungry and had no water. Are we human beings?" she said.
"They just gave us two steamed buns and a piece of ham, and a tiny bag of pickled mustard tuber, and then locked us up for many hours," Wang added.
She said interceptors, police and officials sent from petitioners' hometowns to escort them back from Beijing or other cities with a higher level of government, had beaten a number of people during their detention.
"The interceptors came in and beat up some petitioners," Wang said. "Yesterday, there was a petitioner who had a hole beaten in their head."
She said the group had faced off with police and officials who tried to get them back behind bars.
"We told them that the petitioners were uniting ... and that if they tried to use force to suppress us, we would gain our human rights by means of our own deaths," Wang said.
"We said we have had enough of injustice, and if you start bullying us again, there will be no way out for us but death."
New Year lockup
Ying Ligang, a petitioner and eyewitness from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi said at least 1,000 petitioners had been locked up in Majialou for several days, amid a shutdown of official business for Chinese New Year.
"About 600-700 of them broke out," he said.
"They were shouting slogans which called on President Xi Jinping to ... bring down [corruption] and give them back their human rights," Ying said. "They also wished him a happy new year."
"The crowd of petitioners were in a very angry mood, complaining about illegal actions by the state complaints office towards people with grievances, and shouting slogans."
"They even sang the 'Internationale' and blocked traffic for several hours," he added.
Around 20 police were dispatched to the scene, as well as 10 security guards, while officials in charge of Majialou tried to persuade the petitioners back into the center.
"The petitioners are a disadvantaged group, so what else were they to do?" Ying said. "All they can do is exchange their lack of freedom for some public compassion and sympathy."
Security beefed up
Authorities in Beijing have detained large numbers of people with complaints against the government after they tried to visit the homes of party leaders ahead of Chinese New Year, which marks the advent of the Year of the Horse on Friday.
Police have stepped up patrols and identity checks on streets and at intersections in recent days, raiding areas where petitioners usually stay and sending them to out-of-town detention centers like Majialou, petitioners said.
Detention in centers like Majialou—officially known as 'reception centers'—follows no procedure under China's current judicial system, and is an interim measure used by the authorities to briefly incarcerate those who complain before sending them home under escort.
But many petitioners converge on major centers of government during high-level political meetings and significant dates in the calendar, in the hope of focusing public attention on their plight.
Nearly 20,000 grievances are filed daily to complaints offices across China in person, according to official figures released last November.
China has pledged to revamp its system for lodging complaints against the government as part of a package of reforms announced recently, but rights activists say the changes aren't likely to lead to more justice for petitioners.
Many petitioners are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income living in constant fear of being detained by officials from their hometown who run representative offices in larger cities seeking out those who complain about them.
Those who do pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by the authorities.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.