As thousands of people massed outside government buildings to lodge complaints against the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on Friday, President Xi Jinping warned that the party must clean up its act or face losing power.
More than 10,000 petitioners, ordinary Chinese with grievances against the government, gathered outside the party's disciplinary headquarters and the complaints department of the State Council in a bid to have their cases reviewed on the party's 95th anniversary.
Many were forced aboard waiting buses and taken to local police stations, or to a large unofficial detention center at Jiujingzhuang on the outskirts of Beijing, petitioners told RFA.
"July 1, for me, is a date I can never forget, because I have been thrown into black jails twice on that date; that's where I passed two of the Communist Party's birthdays," Wuxi petitioner Ding Hongfen told RFA.
"On July 1, 2013, four police officers led by Tao Wenjun tied me to an interrogation chair and tried to force a confession out of me," Ding said. "So July 1 is very significant for me."
The Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang reported that some 4,000 people had gathered outside the State Council complaints office in Beijing by 8 a.m. on Friday, swelling to more than 10,000 by noon the same day.
A petitioner from Longkou in the eastern province of Shandong said many petitioners risk beatings, harassment, arbitrary detention in "black jails" or "study centers" and death in police custody to pursue their complaints.
"There was a woman from our neighborhood who was locked up in a black jail where she was beaten to death by police," the petitioner said. "Seven years later, her body is still in the morgue."
"The local government had the cops beat her to death, and there are three or four similar cases from our area," he said. "All the bodies are still in the morgue."
Tiananmen locked down
As President Xi addressed the assembled elite of the Communist Party in the Great Hall of the People on party unity based on a 'purer' form of Marxism, petitioners said Tiananmen Square was effectively locked down during his speech.
"Tiananmen Square was closed today, and the three of us were detained and put onto a bus at Xinhuamen," Hebei petitioner He Yazhen told RFA. "The police just shoved us onto the bus, and took us to the police station."
Among those detained was Wuxi petitioner Tao Guofen, who was taken away during a police operation to clear Beijing's Southern Railway Station of petitioners.
"Several dozen petitioners came up from Wuxi ahead of the anniversary to petition in Beijing, but we were taken away by police who were clearing the area," Tao said.
She said one of them had been hospitalized after a heart attack.
"They took us to Jiujingzhuang, and a woman called You Guifeng had a heart attack when we got there. She was taken to the hospital," she said. "There were seven others who were also detained, but we don't know where they were taken."
As the party's anniversary celebrations got into full swing, Xi warned its 88 million members that they risk being discarded by history if they don't eradicate corruption from within their ranks.
"As the ruling party, the biggest danger we face is corruption," Xi said in a speech that was carried live on state television.
"We must have a staunch will, not let up on our zero-tolerance attitude, investigate all cases and punish those who are corrupt, to give corrupt elements no place to hide in the party," he said.
Xi's administration has detained and jailed dozens of senior officials in the president's anti-graft battle, including powerful former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang.
But retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said corruption will never be eradicated under one-party rule.
"The most important thing is that we're living under a single-party dictatorship," Sun said. "That's going to cause all sorts of problems for the government."
"Corruption exists because they won't bring in a democratic system of government with the rule of law," he said. "That's why the regime will eventually fall."
Zi Su, a former professor at a party school in the southwestern province of Yunnan, said he was watching Xi's speech carefully for indicators of where the president would take the country next.
"It's quite clear that Xi is seeking to consolidate party interests, and to employ controls and political struggle of the kind used by Mao Zedong," Zi Su said.
"That's my main analysis of this speech, and all of his political points, his planned measures and his personality bear this out," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.