Authorities in Beijing targeted petitioners and rights activists with surveillance and detention ahead of the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which opened on Tuesday, activists told RFA.
As many as one million people, including retirees and homemakers, have joined the ranks of the "red armband" citizen security detail, while residents living near the Great Hall of the People have been ordered to keep their windows closed, a source close to the operation told RFA.
This year's security is tighter than previous years, as this year will see a number of politically sensitive dates, including the centenary of the May Fourth Movement and the 30th anniversary of the 1989 student movement and Tiananmen massacre, the source said.
This year will also see the 70th anniversary of late supreme leader Mao Zedong's founding of the People's Republic of China from the rostrum of Tiananmen gate on Oct. 1, 1949.
Police checks are now being carried out across the city, well ahead of the NPC opening ceremony.
A resident surnamed Li said he was required to show his ID card and driver's license at a police checkpoint on the way into the capital from neighboring Hebei province.
Meanwhile, critics of the government are being held under preemptive restrictions ahead of the parliamentary session, activists told RFA.
Beijing resident Qi Zhiyong, who was maimed when a People's Liberation Army (PLA) tank ran over his legs on the night of June 3, 1989, during the bloody crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement, said security has been tighter than he can remember.
"It was never like this before; I never heard of restrictions being so tight as they are this time," Qi told RFA. "They won't even let people in the nearby streets open their windows."
"I have to apply to be allowed to go to the hospital or just to take a stroll along the street," he said. "Then, they can't approve it until they've had the green light from higher up."
Measures aimed at 'target populations'
A security directive leaked from the municipal police department's Western district branch said security measures were aimed at "target populations," including petitioners, who typically converge on the capital ahead of high-level political meetings in the hope of getting their grievances heard.
Beijing police raided several locations on Sunday morning, sending out personnel to evict petitioners found living in rented accommodations in Fangshan district, petitioners told RFA.
Petitioner Bo Lichuan, 70, said she was kept locked up in illegal detention by police and denied food for an entire day.
And Beijing resident surnamed Zhou said she would likely be questioned by police after giving an interview to a foreign news organization.
"Security is pretty tight ahead of the parliamentary sessions," Zhou said. "The state security police said they absolutely must come to my home and meet with me about the interview I gave. They told me I shouldn't speak out publicly during the parliamentary sessions."
Housing rights activist Ni Yulan said the authorities are now closely monitoring all social media communications in Beijing.
"I sent out a couple of photos to a Beijing friend of mine called Ye Guoqiang; I posted them to my friends group chat," Ni said. "Just a short while later ... an officer from the local police station came to order me to delete the photos."
"There was a slogan in the photos that said 'I want to leave the house; give me back my freedom, '" she said.
A security guard in a building in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district said police at district level had set up a task force to deal with "emergent situations," such as fires, explosions or people waving banners.
A Beijing resident surnamed Lu said the authorities appear to be very worried about the safety of China's highest-ranking leaders.
"If any politically important people try to go past on Chang'an Avenue [near the Great Hall of the People], then everyone has to keep their windows shut," Lu said. "Actually, they are really afraid of an attack of some kind."
"If there's a motorcade, then they have to seal off the entire street beforehand, and nobody is allowed down there," he said. "There are also more security checks on public transport."
"We're not talking about a radius of two or three kilometers; the security controls start more than 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] out," he said.
Activists leave city
Rights activists Xu Zhiyong and rights lawyer Tang Jitian had left the city to avoid being placed under close surveillance during the NPC session, fellow activists said.
But they were taken away in a police raid shortly after checking into a hotel in the central city of Zhengzhou, rights activist Wang Yi told RFA.
"They were asleep at around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., when a bunch of uniformed and plainclothes police dragged them down to the local police station," Wang said.
"They searched all of their stuff, including [scanning] their cell phones," she said. "They didn't let them go until the next day."
She said Tang and Xu had gone elsewhere rather than impose on friends.
"I don't know where they went after that," Wang said.
Calls to their cell phones rang unanswered on Monday.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.