Authorities in Beijing have detained hundreds of people who converged on Tiananmen Square this week in a bid to wish the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership a happy Year of the Goat, activists said on Friday.
"We ... wanted to wish President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang a Happy New Year," petitioner Li Min told RFA after being sent to an unofficial detention center on the outskirts of the capital.
"We were detained on Chang'an Avenue and taken to the Fuyoujie police station, and then sent to Majialou for registration," Li said.
"They didn't give us anything to eat, not even a steamed bun," he said.
The authorities released the group later in the day, and they returned to the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, he said.
"We were detained again, and taken to the Fuyoujie police station, and then back to Majialou again," said Li, who hails from the southwestern province of Sichuan.
"The petitioners are all so hungry we can't bear it," he said. "We are cold and hungry."
More than 500 held
He said more than 500 petitioners—ordinary Chinese with often long-running complaints against the government—had gathered near Tiananmen Square again on Friday.
"There are more than 500 people crammed into the Fuyoujie police station," Li said. "They are from Zhejiang, the northeast, Hubei, and all across China."
"Once again, we were cold, and they didn't feed us," said Li, adding that Beijing was recently hit by a large snowstorm.
A Zhejiang petitioner also inside the Fuyoujie police station, Yang Dongying said: "We wanted to wish our leaders a Happy New Year, and tell them about our complaints."
Yang also estimated the petitioners' numbers at "more than 500."
"Some were brought here from outside the gates of [government headquarters at] Zhongnanhai," Yang said. "Others were brought from near Tiananmen Square."
"We are all getting registered now before being sent to Majialou and Jiujingzhuang [petitioner detention center].
Police 'chased us away'
Tianjin petitioner Tang Xinbo said he had been part of a group of around 300 people who tried to visit Xi's residence in Yuquanshan on Thursday.
"We wanted to wish the president Happy New Year," Tang said. "We got as far as the turning into his road, and the police chased us away."
Another member of the same group, who gave only her surname Han, said the police had behaved "like vicious dogs."
"We had just got off the bus, and the police ... said who do you think you are, to try to visit Xi Jinping," Han said, adding that the president had just arrived on a trip to the northern city of Xi'an.
"They said, you'll have to go to Xi'an to see him, and make trouble there instead," she said.
"We were put on buses and driven away from Yuquanshan, about 200-300 of us."
Han said some petitioners had also tried to visit former premier Zhu Rongji.
Detained, beaten, harassed
The Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang said around 1,000 petitioners were bused to the Jiujingzhuang detention center from the Fuyoujie police station on Thursday alone.
China's petitioners, who often include forced evictees or farmers who have lost their land to development, as well as former public servants complaining of a lack of income, flood the government's "letters and visits" petitioning system with more than 20,000 new complaints a day, according to government figures from 2013.
In the process, they say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," and beaten and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to a higher level.
Their cases, some of which have dragged on for many years, are increasingly being rejected by the country's courts, rights activists say.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.