As world leaders met in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou at the start of the G20 summit, dozens of dissidents, rights activists and ordinary Chinese seeking to highlight grievances against the government were subjected to "disappearances," detention and house arrest by China's state security police, rights activists told RFA.
Citizen journalist Hang Xiuqiong, who writes for the Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang, said she saw at least eight people detained on a Hangzhou-bound train.
"They are focusing on locking up petitioners ... they have already detained eight people on the Z9 service [to Hangzhou]. They're not letting them leave," Hang said.
As U.S. President Barack Obama met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Chinese security forces threw an unprecedented security cordon around the summit venue.
"There are security forces at every intersection, and the plainclothes police and riot police are everywhere," Hang told RFA. "Restaurants and hotels are all closed, and there are security checks at the entrance to all the hospitals, where they are checking people's bags."
"All of the roads to the [venue] are closed, which is where I'm standing right now; they won't let me go any further," she said.
"There are very few people on the streets, just police."
China has launched an unprecedented "stability maintenance" operation ahead of the G20 summit, with many people deprived of their liberty in the weeks running up to the event, rights groups said.
"Incidents of detention, enforced disappearance, forced travel, and house arrest have violated the human rights of many Chinese citizens," the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a statement on its website.
It said rights activists and petitioners in neighboring counties and provinces have been particularly targeted by the authorities, with at least 42 people illegally deprived of their liberty in Jiangsu province and Shanghai.
"A majority of these individuals have been forcibly disappeared, putting them outside any legal protections and, hence, at greater risk of torture and ill-treatment," the group said.
It cited the detention of Wuxi-based activist Shen Aibin on Sept. 2 on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble." Shen is currently being held in the Wuxi No. 2 Detention Center in Jiangsu province.
At least nine activists from Shanghai were detained either at their homes or en route to Hangzhou, while it counted 22 forced disappearances of activists from Beijing and Shanghai, including Ye Hongxia, Wang Kouma and Liu Feiyue.
It said another Shanghai-based activist, Fan Yiyang was taken on "vacation" by police to Zhejiang's Yandang mountains on Aug. 23 as part of the G20 preparations.
Sichuan-based activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang website, said another of the site's contributors, citizen journalist Yang Xiuqiong, had also gone missing on Saturday.
"We don't know Yang Xiuqiong's status right now," Huang said. "She has basically fallen off the radar in Hangzhou."
Calls to fellow activists Lin Xiurong and He Yalin rang unanswered after they traveled to Hangzhou on Sunday.
Pulling out all the stops
Chengdu-based rights activist Chen Qiongshu said she was detained and taken to a third location after being detained by police in Hangzhou at the end of August.
"We are currently in Jiulonggou," Chen said. "We left Hangzhou on Sept. 1, and ... then we were brought here."
"There are people following us the whole time, officers from the local police station and government officials; there were seven of them yesterday," she said. "We won't be able to go home until tomorrow ... everyone who goes to Hangzhou is getting detained."
Veteran media commentator Jia Ping said the level of security was extraordinary.
"They have clearly used the G20 as a starting point to develop from," he said. "This is just a discussion forum for developed and developing countries to meet, but China has to pull out all the stops as if it were the Olympics."
"But its only effect has been to make people care less, and to make them very resentful," Jia said.
"The whole thing has cost a fortune, and they really couldn't care less about ordinary people."
A Hangzhou resident who asked not to be named said an eerie calm had descended on the city after the authorities banned privately registered vehicles from the streets and encouraged large swathes of the population to leave town.
"It's even emptier than it is on Chinese New Year; no vehicles are allowed to be out," the resident said.
"It feels like [a ghost town] with nine out of 10 of the shops shuttered," he said. "Anyone whose official residency papers aren't here in Hangzhou has had to go back to their birthplace."
Activists in Fujian and the northeastern province of Heilongjiang said police had already mobilized to prevent people with grievances from heading to the G20 in the hope of highlighting them.
"There are several petitioners from Fuzhou who were intercepted at the Wenzhou railway station ... We don't know what has happened to them," Fuzhou-based activist Zhuang Lei told RFA.
And Heilongjiang activist Sun Dongsheng said he knew of six people who were detained on a train en route to the G20 venue, although it was unclear if they were the same as the eight counted by Tianwang's Hang.
"Two of them were going to visit friends, and two were going to get medical treatment," Sun said. "Three have already been escorted home, their cameras confiscated."
President Xi on Sunday called on world leaders to avoid "empty talk" and confront sluggish economic growth and rising protectionism at the start of the G20.
The world economy "still faces multiple risks and challenges including a lack of growth momentum and consumption, turbulent financial markets, receding global trade and investment," Xi told the assembled leaders, who represent some 85 percent of the world's GDP and two-thirds of its population.
China is hoping a successful G20 will project a global image of an assured and powerful nation. But experts fear the gathering will be short on substance, with scant progress made on what to do about the conflict in Syria and the global refugee crisis.
The U.S. and China on Saturday ratified the Paris climate accord, paving the way for implementation of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the two largest producers.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung and Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.