HONG KONG—Authorities in Beijing have detained a group of "petitioners," ordinary Chinese citizens with grievances against the government, outside the official residence of Premier Wen Jiabao.
Li Zhongying, a petitioner from the southwestern province of Yunnan, was removed by police from Wen's Beijing residence, where she said she was waiting to wish him a happy Year of the Ox.
"I just wanted to wish the Premier Happy New Year," Li said by cell phone from a police cell in Beijing, where she was locked up with more than 20 other petitioners.
"I didn't have my case materials with me. I didn't have anything with me. That was all I intended to do."
A petitioner from Hubei surnamed Liang said she had also been detained outside Wen's residence with her husband and five-year-old grandson and taken without being informed of their destination to the petitioner holding center in Majialou, in the southwestern suburbs of Beijing.
More than 100 petitioners were spending the traditional family holiday inside Majialou, where they were issued two steamed buns and a pack of pickled mustard tuber each on the first day of the lunar new year.
'Busloads' of detainees
"There were several buses," Liang said. "They came here in a convoy and went off to find more people to detain in Majialou. They didn't tell us where they were taking us. Now we are cold and hungry."
Liang took her petition to Beijing in the hope of winning back some unpaid pension money from her employer. She brought her grandson because there was no one to take care of him at home. She said her grandson hadn't stopped crying since they were detained.
The family didn't know when they would be released.
Another petitioner from Yunnan, who did not provide her name but said she was among those brought to Majialou from Wen's residence, spoke of detentions involving well-wishers at President Hu Jintao's home in the capital.
"We were first brought to Xidan Park where we met around two dozen more roundups. The total in Majialou is about one hundred, all because of trying to visit either Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao’s residence," she said.
The woman said that some petitioners were beaten as police herded them into a van and took them away.
"According to a woman in the police car, police beat her husband, injuring his lower spine."
Calls to the Dongjiao Minxiang police station in Beijing, which initially detained the petitioners, went unanswered Monday.
'Moved to tears'
Despite freezing weather, nearly two hundred petitioners from various parts of China spent their New Year's Eve outside of the Beijing South Railway Station after being forced out by authorities.
Dozens of local petitioners did their best to help them bear the weather.
Yue Qilong, a disabled Beijing petitioner who lives on social welfare, said he organized other Beijing petitioners to send food and gifts to the petitioners from other provinces.
"We distributed dumplings and candies to them, and also red envelope money to children. They were moved to tears and told us their grievances. I wish the government could fulfill its duties and prevent people from having to live on the streets," Yue said.
"Even during the daytime the temperature was minus seven or eight degrees Celsius (17 to 19 degrees Fahrenheit), but these elderly and sick petitioners had to stay outside without food. We will continue our efforts to help them," he said.
China, which already sees thousands of "mass incidents" a week, is bracing for further social unrest as the global economic crisis begins to bite and waves of laid-off migrant workers head home from China's once-booming coastal cities.
Fears for stability
The head of China's judiciary has called on courts to maintain social stability amid the global economic slowdown, saying the number of labor disputes had jumped by 94 percent in the first 10 months of 2008, compared with the same period the year before.
The "Regulation on Petitions" issued by China's State Council states that petitioners may voice their grievances to higher-level government offices. But those trying to do so are frequently held in unofficial detention centers, or "black jails," before being taken back to their hometowns.
Many petitioners have spent years pursuing complaints against local officials over disputes including the loss of homes and farmland, unpaid wages and pensions, or alleged mistreatment by the authorities.
Parents of children affected by the tainted milk powder scandal, and those who lost children when schools collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake have recently joined their numbers.
Few report getting a satisfactory result, and most say they have become a target of further harassment by the authorities.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Lillian Cheung and in Mandarin by Fan Yuan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Joshua Lipes.