Beijing officials on Tuesday hit out at international concern over its human rights situation, saying that only the Chinese people have the right to speak out on the subject.
But police in the Chinese capital swooped on the thousands of petitioners who arrived in the Chinese capital to pursue complaints against the ruling Chinese Communist Party ahead of Human Rights Day on Tuesday.
"There are tens of thousands of petitioners lurking in Beijing," retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer Gao Hongyi told RFA's Mandarin Service.
Gao, who hails from the eastern port city of Qingdao, said he and dozens of other former PLA officers planned to converge on the United Nations representative offices in Beijing's embassy district on Tuesday.
Thousands of petitioners thronged the alleyway outside the complaints offices of the central government, Supreme People's Court and National People's Congress on Tuesday, on a street dubbed by petitioners the "Dead End Alley of the Three Cheats."
"After I got there, the place was packed with people and large numbers of police," Henan petitioner Shi Yuhong told RFA's Cantonese Service.
"We were all put onto buses and taken to the holding centers," he said.
"I was put on the 47th bus [to Jiujingzhuang]," he said.
Army of petitioners
China's army of petitioners files nearly 20,000 grievances in person every day to complaints offices across the country, according to official figures released last week.
The government's complaints website currently receives around 1,200 complaints on any working day online.
The number of ordinary Chinese traveling to Beijing to pursue grievances against the government typically swells ahead of key dates, as petitioners hope their cases will get a more sympathetic hearing.
Instead, many say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by the authorities if they try to petition a higher level of government.
Gao said many PLA veterans, a disgruntled group regarded by the government as highly 'sensitive,' were without pensions or housing after being demobilized during major cuts in military personnel during the 1990s.
"I served my country as a soldier, and gave up my youth," he said, adding that he was promised an income after demobilization.
"I took them to court and I won; the court ordered them to pay me my salary, but they just wouldn't. They haven't paid me for more than 10 years."
Beijing police stepped up security around major railway stations ahead of Human Rights Day on Tuesday, petitioners said.
"They detained a few more people near the southern railway station in Beijing," said a petitioner surnamed Liu from the northeastern province of Jilin.
"A lot of people are planning to head up to the U.N. at Liangmaqiao and the new premises of China Central Television to call for better human rights," Liu said.
"I saw a lot of police and their vehicles by the southern railway station," he added. "They treat petitioners as the enemy."
Shandong petitioner Li Tianfei said he had seen police officers carrying the dead body of Song Zili, a petitioner from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, away from the southern railway station on Tuesday morning.
"The police were putting his body into a bag," he said, but didn't know how the man had died.
"They put a police cordon around the area, and they took any petitioners who came to look off to Jiujingzhuang [detention center]," he said.
Call for release
Human Rights Day comes to China amid growing calls for the release of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo—who published a controversial political charter on the same day in 2008—and concern for his wife, Liu Xia, who is under continuing house arrest at the couple's Beijing home.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for both the Lius' release in a statement issued on the fifth anniversary of Liu Xiaobo's initial detention for co-authoring "Charter 08."
Kerry also said he was concerned about Liu Xia and anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong, who is expected to face trial for public order offenses after staging a demonstration calling on China's leaders to reveal their assets.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said both Liu Xiaobo and Xu had broken the law.
"China is a country with rule of law, and all are equal before the law," Hong told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.
"Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong are Chinese citizens who broke the law and have naturally been punished according to Chinese law," Hong said.
"China's 1.3 billion people have the best right to talk about the country's human rights," he added.
Rights 'moving backwards'
Meanwhile, rights activists in Hong Kong joined the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN in calling for Liu's release.
"We call on the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release Liu Xiaobo, and to end Liu Xia's house arrest," the writers' group said in a statement.
Richard Choi, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong-based Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said human rights had 'moved backwards' in China during the past year.
"Xu Zhiyong was arrested, while Liu Xia is under illegal house arrest," he said. "They won't let her have any contact with the outside world."
"The harm Liu Xia has suffered has become more and more serious in recent years," Choi said.
Exiled Chinese poet Bei Ling also called on Beijing to give Liu Xia back her freedom.
"Independent Chinese PEN is particularly concerned with the plight of Liu Xia this year," Bei said. "Her house arrest has gone on for nearly four years now."
"There is a lot of concern for her in the international community right now, not only for Liu Xiaobo," he said.
Overseas rights activists also hit out at Beijing's rights record in ethnic minority regions of the country.
The past year has witnessed a sharp decline for human rights conditions in [Xinjiang], the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The most alarming trend has been the increase in extrajudicial killings conducted by Chinese security forces," the group said.
"Time and again the Chinese government has been shown to be in violation of any number of international human rights instruments," UHRP director Alim Seytoff said in an emailed statement. "The norms of behavior agreed upon by the international community clearly have no interest for Chinese officials.
"We must openly criticize those governments who think international human rights standards do not apply to them," he said.
Exiled Tibetans staged demonstrations outside Chinese embassies and official buildings around the world on Tuesday, which also marks the 24th anniversary of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Amid a continuing wave of self-immolations inside Tibet, officials from the Tibetan government-in-exile also marked the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Unfortunately, even after 65 years of proclamation there is not much for Tibetans to celebrate given the deteriorating human rights condition in Tibet", exile Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay told reporters.
Deputy parliamentary speaker Sonam Tenphel called on Beijing to implement international human rights covenants and to respect the rights of ethnic minorities within the People's Republic.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Yu and Tian Yi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.