Authorities in the Chinese capital launched a citywide crackdown on Wednesday on thousands of people who traveled to pursue complaints against local officials, while critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party were expelled from Beijing ahead of the annual parliament.
An estimated 10,000 people converged on the complaints department of China's cabinet, the State Council, eyewitnesses said.
Many were immediately detained by "interceptors" from their hometowns and taken to unofficial detention centers or directly escorted home, they said.
"There are so many people crowded in here with group petitions, individual complaints," a petitioner surnamed Xu from the southern province of Guangzhou from the scene.
"There must be about 10,000 people here," Xu said. "The interceptors are grabbing them and taking them away; they just took another group away just now."
"Lots of people were taken away by their local governments," Xu said. "Some people just called my mother-in-law to tell her that a vice-mayor from her hometown where she's registered in Hubei is on his way by high-speed train to bring her back again."
Xu said petitioners are generally crammed into cheap, dormitory-style rooms on the outskirts of the capital, while the interceptors have filled up the hotels near the complaints office in downtown Beijing.
"They won't allow petitioners to stay in the vicinity, and they are very strict about detaining them around here," Xu said. "I just found a place ... a guesthouse."
"A waitress was telling me just now that all of the rooms in the hotel were taken up with police and interceptors looking to detain petitioners," she said.
Raided in the middle of the night
Shandong petitioner Jiang Guochen told RFA that his hotel had been raided in the middle of the night.
"It was past midnight, and [the interceptors] wanted to drag me out of the hotel, but I told them over my dead body," Jiang said. "You'll have to take me home as a corpse, I said."
"One of them was going to get tough on me but I wouldn't back down, and eventually they realized it wasn't going to work, and they lay down on the sofa in the lounge, we all did."
"When I saw that they'd fallen asleep at around 1.40 a.m., I ran away. But they've still got my ID card," Jiang said.
In a bid to avoid the Beijing complaints office from being swamped during the parliamentary sessions which start on Friday, local governments at municipal and county level have been ordered to hold mass complaints days from March 1 through March 15 for local residents.
They have also been warned to "properly do their job of taking petitioners back home from Beijing," according to government directives leaked by petitioners on the popular smartphone app WeChat.
Governments that fail to prevent petitioners from reaching Beijing will be investigated and those responsible sanctioned, the directives warned.
Meanwhile, rights activist Xu Qin, who works for the Hubei-based China Human Rights Observer website, said she had been ordered to leave her rented accommodation in Beijing for the duration of the parliamentary sessions.
"Three people who described themselves as being from the stability maintenance office in my hometown came to visit me," she said. "Then, as I was leaving my room at the guesthouse where I'm staying, I saw a room filled with more than a dozen plainclothes police."
"I pushed open the door and asked if they were state security police," Xu said. "They didn't say anything but I think they have been watching the place this whole time ... in case I try to meet up with other people to protest or organize any other activities," she said.
She said the police had ordered her to leave Beijing immediately.
"They told me, leave now, which means that this is definitely to do with the parliamentary sessions," she said."They said they'd pay for a high-speed rail ticket home ... On the way back they were reporting back to base the whole time."
Xu, who said she had quit her private-sector job in Beijing after facing constant harassment from the authorities because of her human rights work, wasn't detained, however.
"They let me go on condition that I didn't try to go back to Beijing," she said.
Police have also stepped up raids on "petitioner villages" in recent weeks, as well as trying to install surveillance cameras in the homes of anyone trying to rent temporary accommodation in the capital.
"The petitioner village in Beijing was raided by police yesterday morning at about 5.00 a.m., and [Shanghai activist] Cheng Yulan was forcibly taken away by 60 or 70 police officers and forced to return to her hometown," Beijing petitioner Wu Lijuan told RFA.
"It's likely that she has been detained because I couldn't get through on her phone last night," Wu said. "Most of the police were from Shanghai."
A police station in the southern Beijing district of Fengtai has meanwhile ordered anyone seeking a temporary residence permit in the area, which is relatively cheap and favored by out-of-town workers and petitioners, should first install a 360 degree surveillance camera in their room, according to a police notice circulating online.
State news agency Xinhua reported that the police had perhaps "overstepped their powers" in requiring the targets of surveillance to buy and install their own monitoring equipment.
The equipment should not be installed "in a bedroom," the agency quoted the police notice as saying.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Lee Lai for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.