Authorities in the Chinese capital sealed off Tiananmen Square on Friday after an attempted suicide bid outside the central government's complaints office ahead of the annual parliament, petitioners told RFA.
"It happened yesterday morning at about 9 o'clock," petitioner He Yazhen from the northern city of Tangshan told RFA. "It was a suicide attempt, but I don't know the outcome," she said.
"I got here this morning and someone else has a video that I will send to you," he said.
The video showed a young man in a purple jacket standing outside the complaints office surrounded by empty barriers where petitioners usually line up to register.
The man, who was holding an object to the base of his throat and gesticulating at police officers, was a petitioner, according to the eyewitness who shot the footage on her cell phone.
Police then begin shouting at bystanders to move away from the main, clearing the crowd back to around 50 meters' distance and preventing them from coming closer.
"There's a young lad there with a knife at the gates of the State Council complaints office," the owner of the cell phone can be heard saying on the soundtrack. "They are trying to prevent any news from getting out."
"He was probably left with no other option," she says.
Tang Xinbo, a petitioner from the northern port city of Tianjin, said he sympathized with the man's desperation.
"He must have been left with nowhere else to go and just didn't want to live anymore," Tang said.
He said many petitioners are left feeling that life is no longer worth living in the face of repeated failures to have their grievances heard.
"There is no social justice any more these days, and ordinary people are being pushed to the point where they are at a total dead end, so they commit suicide," Tang said.
"People are in despair; I think we'll see a lot more of this in future," he said.
Police and ‘interceptors’
The man's protest came as Beijing gears up for annual sessions of its parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which opens on Sunday, and its advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which opened on Friday.
He Yazhen said that thousands of petitioners were lining up once more outside the complaints department of the State Council, China's cabinet, and that some had tried to gather on Tiananmen Square, ready for the CPPCC opening in the Great Hall of the People opposite.
But police and "interceptors" sent by local governments to escort petitioners back to their hometowns had sealed off the area, she said.
"I am standing on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square right now, and there are interceptors everywhere," He said. "There are about 1,000 of them."
"Tiananmen Square is now under total security lockdown, so you can only get past using the sidewalks on the [east and west] sides," she said. "The CPPCC opening ceremony is at 3 p.m. today."
Petitioners—ordinary Chinese people with complaints against the government ranging from forced eviction and loss of land to development to deaths, disappearances, mistreatment of loved ones in custody, and unpaid pensions—attempt to make the journey to Beijing ahead of major political events in a bid to put pressure on local officials to resolve their grievances.
Many never make it, and are placed under house arrest or taken on enforced "vacations" for the duration of the event. Some are detained by police and interceptors on trains, buses and in the street, or in raids on the Beijing's "petitioner villages."
Beijing petitioner Yan Chunfeng said security on the streets of the capital was tight ahead of the parliamentary sessions.
"Wherever you walk on the streets there are checkpoints at every intersection," Yan said. "They are doing spot checks of people at the Southern Railway Station ... and there are plainclothes police everywhere."
"Sometimes the police go into the hotels, which was how [rights activists] Sun Dongsheng and Wu Jixin were caught. They were taken away," she said.
"A lot of petitioners are sleeping out on the streets ... They are all coming here for the parliament, hoping to catch the attention of their leaders," she said.
‘Escorted home by officials’
Those who do are often caught outside government complaints offices and directly escorted home, or taken to unofficial detention centers on the outskirts of the city by the busload, before being sent home.
Fujian petitioner Lu Zuoyu spoke to RFA under escort back to her hometown on Friday.
"I am currently being escorted home by officials from my local government, who have no warrant to detain or search me," Lu said.
"They were carrying out searches; they suddenly came into the room where I was staying," she said.
"I was taken by them from my room, then we were taken to the Jujingzhuang detention center and then the local government officials came to take me back," Lu said.
"They put us on a bus with more than 20 people ... there were two or three of those buses [to Jiujingzhuang] yesterday evening," she said.
"There was nowhere to sleep inside Jiujingzhuang and they locked us up in there until the next morning," she said.
Many petitioners complain of beatings, illegal detention in "black jails" or "legal study centers" and other forms of official harassment after they return home, while reports have emerged of petitioners who die en route, while in the custody of police or interceptors.
Petitioners Wang Shetao and Li Xiaocui, of Luoyang's Liangzhai village, reportedly burned to death in murky circumstances in January after a fire at a police station, official media reported.
Later the same month, Heilongjiang petitioner Li Naiqiu said she was picked up by interceptors from Taihe city and escorted back to her hometown from the unofficial detention center at Majialou on Jan. 22.
On the trip home, she was handcuffed and beaten up by the officials, who also kicked her in the abdomen, putting her unborn baby at risk, she told RFA at the time.
Deaths and "disappearances" in unofficial detention centers, or "black jails," are also not uncommon, but evidence of police wrong-doing is hard to come by when the authorities typically refuse to allow independent autopsies.
Reported by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.