Dozens of parents who lost children in the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008 staged a rally on the ninth anniversary of the disaster on Friday over unpaid compensation, while others remained under close surveillance or house arrest.
Bereaved parents whose children died in the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School in worst-hit Mianzhu gathered outside the offices of the township government to repeat their calls for an investigation into allegations of shoddy construction at schools across the province.
"I think there are more than 100 people here," a parent surnamed Li told RFA from the scene. "We are all waiting to speak with our leaders outside the gates of the government offices."
Bereaved parents were permitted to have a second child after the disaster, in a special dispensation under draconian family planning rules, but they say the government also promised to fund the children's education: a promise that has yet to be kept.
"Our child is growing up now, and we have to try to resolve this issue," Li said, indicating that his phone is likely being monitored by the authorities.
"It's not convenient for me to speak right now," he said.
More than 80,000 people, thousands of them schoolchildren, died in the May 12, 2008 earthquake that devastated mountainous regions, and especially school buildings, in the southwestern province.
But years-long campaigning for compensation and for financial assistance promised as part of the reconstruction program have yielded nothing.
In nearby Dujiangyan, bereaved parents said they had been forced to stay home.
"A lot of us here in Dujiangyan who used to petition together are now being followed or accompanied everywhere by local security officials from our local residential compounds," a parent surnamed Wu told RFA on Friday.
"Most of us are now under effective house arrest; there are people with us at all times," he said. "They have told us we mustn't get involved in any kind of activities, and we're not allowed to go anywhere."
"There has been a huge stability maintenance operation here in the past few days," he said.
Pressure from authorities
Security is particularly tight this year ahead of a forum on President Xi Jinping's new Silk Road initiative in Beijing this weekend, he added.
Sichuan-based activist and writer Tan Zuoren, who was jailed for five years in May 2009 for "incitement to subvert state power" after he investigated claims that corruption had led to substandard buildings, said he had been summoned for two days of "chats" with his local branch of the state security police.
"I drank two days' worth of tea with them, and they told me I had said enough on the matter, and that I shouldn't contact the parents again," Tan said. "Then they contacted all of the parents as well, so they don't dare get in contact with me."
"They told me that if I speak to the foreign media, I'll be fraternizing with hostile forces to incite subversion," he said. "The state security police told me I mustn't leave the house."
He said the security measures were much tougher this year compared with those at last year's anniversary.
In the provincial capital Chengdu, long-time political activist Huang Xiaomin said the "pressure" from the authorities is intense.
"Intense pressure has become the new normal here in Chengdu, and in Sichuan generally," Huang said. "They had already started to put defensive measures and controls into place 10 days ago, ahead of the Belt and Road Forum."
"[The state security police] called me yesterday," he said. "They said it's because I have a complicated background. It's actually hard to tell whether it's ... Belt and Road or the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake."
The Sichuan police operation comes amid a nationwide security crackdown ahead of the new Silk Road forum, when leaders of 29 countries and senior officials from many more gather in Beijing on Sunday.
Ordinary people with complaints against the government have been told to stay home, while People's Liberation Army (PLA) veterans said they have been subject to following and monitoring by state security police.
"I think the amount of petitioning we have seen in recent years has put a huge amount of pressure on the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party," Guangdong-based rights activist Chen Fengqiang told RFA.
"The authorities are now deploying all manner of high technology to track and monitor everyone, using their cell phones to track their positions," Chen said.
"They can also establish someone's position using their ID card, because there is now a real-name registration system on China's long-distance bus services, so the police know if you have bought a ticket," he said.
The U.S. and South Korea said on Friday that they will be sending delegations to discuss Xi's initiative to expand trade links between Asia, Africa, and Europe through billions of dollars in infrastructure investment.
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines will attend the forum, which is widely seen as a prestige project aimed at boosting Xi's profile as the "core" of the Chinese leadership ahead of a key party congress later in the year.
The most prominent attendee from the West will be Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Agence France-Presse reported.
Reported by Xin Lin and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san, Wong Lok-to and Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.