HONG KONG—Authorities in Beijing have begun moving to clear large numbers of people from the capital who have a grievance against the government as security tightens, with local residents and petitioners reporting detentions in several sensitive locations.
Hundreds of protesters have traveled from all over China to the capital's prestigious Beijing University following recently reported remarks about petitioners by a professor there.
A number of these were rounded up in recent days, and their details recorded by police after they staged a sit-in in protest at recent comments by professor Sun Dong Dong, head of the university's forensics department, who was reported as saying that 99 percent of long-term petitioners—people who try to lodge complaints about alleged official wrongdoing through official channels—are mentally ill.
Sun has since said his comments, which have drawn widespread public anger and protests from China's thousands of long-term petitioners, were reported out of context by the media, while a health ministry official has said he was exercising his right to freedom of expression.
On Saturday and Sunday the police were detaining a lot of petitioners..."
A Beijing-based petitioner surnamed Li said she saw 83 petitioners who had traveled from Shanghai to protest against Sun's reported comments.
"According to the records of the Haidian branch police station, five of them had come back a second time after being removed," Li said.
Detained outside university
Li said both she and petitioners Wang Shenfang and Zhu Jianping were detained for a total of seven days for causing a public disturbance."
"We were then taken out of Majialou [detention center] by our hometown representatives in Beijing, who wanted to know the exact circumstances of our coming to Beijing University, and particularly whether anyone had got in touch to organize the protest," she said.
"They didn't send us back to Shanghai until the evening on the second day."
Sun's comments are particularly sensitive for petitioners, who have been incarcerated in mental institutions and force-fed medication because they refuse to give up after decades of trying to win redress for official wrongdoing, which can include deaths in police custody, forced evictions, and alleged corruption.
Comments 'out of context'
In a telephone interview, Sun acknowledged his remarks but said media reports published his comments out of context.
"The original meaning of my comment was that, of the 'long-time' petitioners who came to me, the result [99 percent of them suffer from mental problems] was based on several tests. But when the comments came out, the media omitted the first part and only published the other part," Sun said.
"Of course I take responsibility for what I said. But the media deleted part of it and triggered this” response, he said.
"The petitioners’ emotions are running so high right now that it will only trigger more contradictions if I talk to them. I will explain [the situation] to them in due course," Sun said.
"I have dealt with great pressure from this incident. But from an
objective point of view, it has caused us to learn and to care more
about mental problems. This shows progress in society,” he said.
Government officials have indicated publicly that they accept that the majority of petitioners have legitimate complaints.
In practice, however, petitioners are routinely detained, beaten, and sent back to their hometowns if they try to present them in Beijing, especially during times of tightened security.
Elsewhere in the capital, three petitioners, including two pregnant women and a cancer patient, were detained after they handed out leaflets in and around the Beijing official residence of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday, witnesses said.
Fliers at Premier's house
Li Chunxia and Zhao Chunhong, both pregnant, and cancer patient Li Shuzhen went to the Premier's house on Monday afternoon, and threw leaflets detailing their complaints against the government into the house, and into the alleyway outside it, according to a Beijing resident surnamed Chen, who saw them detained.
"This afternoon at about 3 p.m. three people were taken away in a police car," Chen said.
"They were throwing fliers at No. 17, Dongjiao Alley. Some of the fliers went into the courtyard, while others landed outside the walls."
"They were taken to the police station by police, national security police, and plainclothes officers. I didn't dare to shoot any video," Chen said.
Police have stepped up their presence in the southern part of the city in recent days, especially targeting areas in the south of the city near the railway station and bus station, petitioners said.
"There are a lot of police vehicles," a petitioner from Shenzhen surnamed Zhao said from the southern Beijing district of Fengtai, temporary home to a large number of people seeking to make complaints against officials in their hometown.
"On Saturday and Sunday the police were detaining a lot of petitioners and taking them straight to Majialou," she said, referring to a holding center where petitioners are detained to await escort back to their respective hometowns.
Raid on railway, bus stations
"I was asking around the southern railway station today, and they told me they probably detained a couple of hundred people," she added.
"There were about 20 people detained in the morning," a petitioner from eastern Anhui province surnamed Wang said, referring to petitioners sleeping in the corridors of the long-distance bus station, not far from the southern railway station.
"Down by the railway station, while I was watching they took away a whole busload of people. That's probably 50 or 60 people," he said.
A petitioner surnamed Li said the authorities were deliberately targeting petitioners who might try to travel to central Beijing to protest outside government buildings.
"I was detained at the police station for a day and night. They don't give you anything to eat," she said.
"If it's after 12 p.m. they take you to Majialou, but they deliberately delay things so that you get there after lunchtime and there is nothing to eat."
Authorities in Beijing are beginning to tighten security through the capital ahead of the 20th anniversary of massive pro-democracy protests, which ended in an armed crackdown on student-led protesters in and around Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are believed to have died, but the government has ignored repeatedly calls for a reappraisal and public discussion of the incident.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long and Ding Xiao, and in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.