Authorities in China have launched a nationwide crackdown on thousands of people pursuing complaints against local officials, amid a massive "stability maintenance" operation in the run-up to a five-yearly congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party later this month.
Activists estimate that as many as 10,000 people across China are being held under house arrest, in some form of detention, or round-the-clock surveillance.
Zhang Zhaohua, a Protestant minister in the eastern province of Jiangsu, has been under house arrest for more than a week, he told RFA on Tuesday.
"We estimate that thousands of people are under some form of restriction across the country," Zhang said. "Between 3,000 and 5,000 at the very least."
Petitioner Ding Hongfen from Jiangsu's Wuxi city said the total is likely "more than just a few thousand."
"Anyone with fairly big grievances—people who have suffered persecution—is now under surveillance or house arrest," Ding said. "That includes me."
"The state security police are planning to pay me a visit at 2:00 p.m. today," she said. "I got a call from the village party secretary this morning, trying to get me to go over there, because the police wanted to talk to me."
"I told them I had nothing to fear, and that they could come to my house, so that's why they're coming over at 2:00 p.m."
Wuhan petitioner Xu Chongyang, who is currently pursuing a complaint in Beijing, said many petitioners in the Chinese capital are being forcibly returned to their hometowns under escort by "interceptors" hired by local governments for the job.
"A lot of petitioners have been intercepted while petitioning in Beijing, and taken home," Xu said. "A very large number have been taken to the police stations, so many of them."
"A lot of petitioners are now facing restrictions on their liberty, including those who are renting places to live in Beijing," Xu said. "They are going after out-of-towners in particular; no sooner do they get here than they are detained."
"I know of several thousand who are under restriction as part of stability maintenance, but there are probably more."
In the eastern province of Zhejiang, petitioner Li Youfen said she is one of them.
"The police called me up and then I got a visit from the local police station," Li said. "They wanted me to make reports at the police station [of my whereabouts and plans]."
"They are afraid that I'll go on a trip to Beijing," she said. "There are police cars parked downstairs from my apartment, and people watching me night and day."
In the northern region of Inner Mongolia, Duolun petitioner Wang Fenghua said the authorities have installed a surveillance camera outside her home, and those of her relatives.
"Ever since they detained my sister, her husband and my father, the government has been secretly monitoring us," Wang said. "They have four or five surveillance cameras installed close to the homes of my mother and my brother."
Meanwhile, Beijing petitioner Li Xuehui has been detained on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" after he uploaded a video ridiculing President Xi Jinping.
Beijing rights activist Zhou Xiaoshan said Li's video producer Wang Xiuying and her daughter Wang Fengxian have also missing, believed detained.
"This is a special time [ahead of the 19th Party Congress] and it's difficult to even get into Beijing right now," Zhou said.
He said the families are now too frightened to speak to anyone about the case, and don't appear to have found him a lawyer. Some of their relatives are too elderly to travel to the capital to try to find them.
"I don't think there's anything we can do about it ... Li Xuehui's mother is in her eighties now, and I have no way of contacting her, or it's very difficult."
"The brother doesn't want to work with us, either."
Rights lawyer Sui Muqing said Li Xuehui's detention is likely linked to a satirical video he posted about Xi Jinping.
"Li Xuehui and the others ... will have annoyed various officials over the years, for sure, added to which there's the insult to a national leader, which will give them an opportunity," Sui said.
"So they'll deal with them harshly, because they can justify it, and nobody will dare to get involved."
Authorities in China have stepped up nationwide "stability maintenance" measures targeting anyone with a critical opinion of the government, as President Xi Jinping looks set to reshuffle his leadership team and consolidate his personal grip on power at the 19th Party Congress on Oct. 18.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.