Police moved Thursday to stem the flow of thousands of ordinary Chinese converging on provincial legislatures across the country in a bid to air long-running complaints and grievances against the government.
Authorities in the central city of Wuhan rounded up nearly 300 petitioners after they gathered outside the Hubei education department on the first day of the annual session of the provincial wing of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, activists said.
"The government dispatched a lot of police and riot police, who surrounded us ... and detained quite a few of the teachers among us," a schoolteacher surnamed Song said.
"Some people were shooting video; there were around 200 or 300 people there, and probably just over 100 police officers," he said.
China's 'contract' teachers have waged a long and vocal protest at the refusal by local governments to upgrade them to civil servant status as promised by Beijing nearly two decades ago.
Teachers in China can be hired on civil service or non-civil service contracts, and those on the latter frequently complain of wages that are below a minimum living standard and often go unpaid for months.
Directive No. 32, issued by the central leadership of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in 1997, called on local governments to put all teachers on civil-service contracts, which carry higher wages and more benefits. But cash-strapped local authorities have dragged their feet over the new rules.
"The document said that we should receive social security payments, but in reality we have had nothing," Song said. "Right now, we only get 500 yuan (U.S. $82) a month [in subsistence money]."
"I personally taught for 27 years and went to [the government] but they said it's too complicated to arrange and that there are too many of us."
Outside the Wuhan Municipal People's Congress and the Hubei Provincial People's Congress buildings, petitioners were also gathering, eyewitnesses said.
"Today is the first day of the Hubei provincial parliamentary sessions, and some petitioners came from around the province," rights activist Yi Xu'an said.
"They were...holding up placards and taking photos," Yi said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of petitioners from Sichuan, Henan, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and Guizhou marched to the United Nations offices in Beijing to air their grievances.
"They were shouting 'Down with corruption!' and 'We want human rights!'"petitioner Jiang Chengfen said after attending the protest.
"They were calling on the Chinese government to protect their rights."
But she said the demonstration was short-lived.
"The police came at about 10.00 a.m. in their police cars, and took our names and ID card numbers," Jiang said.
"They were all moved on by [police]."
Nearly 20,000 grievances are filed daily to complaints offices across China in person, according to official figures released last month.
But many petitioners converge on major centers of government during high-level political meetings, in the hope of focusing public attention on their plight.
Rounded up in Chengdu
In the southwestern province of Sichuan, petitioners said they were rounded up by police in downtown Chengdu en route to stage a protest during the provincial parliament.
"As soon as we got off the bus, the police came," Sichuan petitioner Yi Qingxiu said. "They dragged me onto their bus, and tore my clothes."
"We were taken back to Wenjiang [county]," said Yi, who later escaped after police threatened to hold her on a forced "vacation."
A petitioner from Chengdu's Jinniu district, Yan Tafeng, said she had also been detained from police from her home district.
"I haven't got home yet," Yan said from an unofficial detention center in Laijiadian. "They brought me here at 9:00 a.m., and I've been here at the Laijiadian reception center in Chengdu ever since."
"I didn't get any lunch, and no one will process my case, and I haven't been questioned," she said, adding that she had called the police to report an illegal detention, but to no avail.
China has pledged to revamp its system for lodging complaints against the government as part of a package of reforms announced recently, but rights activists say the changes aren't likely to lead to more justice for petitioners.
Many petitioners are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income who live in constant fear of being detained by officials from their hometown, who run representative offices in larger cities for the sole purpose of reducing the number who complain about them.
Those who pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by the authorities.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.