Authorities in Beijing detained hundreds of petitioners—ordinary Chinese who pursue long-running complaints against officials—after they tried to protest in Tiananmen Square to mark National Day on Tuesday, an eyewitness and a rights group said.
"The petitioners went there very early this morning," Huang Qi, founder of the Sichuan-based rights group and website Tianwang, said.
"When they came to raise their banners, they rushed into Tiananmen Square together ... As far as we know, there were several thousand of them," he said.
Huang said "a great many" petitioners had been detained by police, who typically step up security in the square at politically sensitive times, but he said the exact numbers had yet to be confirmed.
However, a woman who was among the detained said she saw 300-400 petitioners being processed at a local police station.
"What they wanted was to invade Tiananmen Square as far as the national flagstaff, and then make their petitions," Huang said. "That's why quite a lot of them were detained."
The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday marked the 64th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, an anniversary considered particularly sensitive because of the number's association with the sixth month and fourth day, or "June 4," the date of the 1989 military crackdown on a student-led pro-democracy movement.
'No political agenda'
Huang said the petitioners had converged on the Square separately, with no overt organization, in small groups, before making the attempt to get to the Square, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators remained encamped for weeks on end—many on hunger strike—in 1989 following the death of disgraced former premier Hu Yaobang.
But Huang said the petitioners had no political agenda.
"They just wanted to make their demands known individually," he said.
Petitioner Shen Zhihua said she was detained and roughly treated by police on Tiananmen Square along with 42 other petitioners after they handed out leaflets detailing their grievances to passers-by, while one petitioner was severely beaten.
"We were handing out leaflets in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao," Shen said.
"The police came to chase us away ... they were very fierce today," she said. "My arm is injured, and Wang Xiaoping was pinned to the ground, and the police were kicking his head. He had injuries all over his body."
Shen said the wave of detentions had filled the local police station to bursting point.
"There are around 300 or 400 here, all petitioners, and there's nowhere to sit, so we are all standing here in the main room where they process everything," she said from the Tiananmen branch police station on Tuesday afternoon.
Shen said police had set up a security cordon around Tiananmen Square and the Zhongnanhai central government compound. "All the roads were closed," she added.
"We came [here] because it's all we could do," Shen said. "Going through official channels at the government departments didn't work."
Elsewhere in the capital, Shenyang petitioner Liu Hua said she had been part of a memorial protest for watermelon vendor Xia Junfeng, executed last month after killing an urban management official, or chengguan, who attacked him.
"We banged on stainless steel bowls, which made a huge noise in the early morning darkness," said Liu, who hails from the same hometown as Xia.
"It was raining heavily, and we banged on bowls and shouted out to send him [into the afterlife]."
"[He] gave a boost to the disadvantaged and downtrodden, on behalf of citizens' rights, and he gave his life to deal a blow [to the system]," Liu said.
"He was forced to it by them," she said, in a reference to the chengguan.
The number of ordinary Chinese traveling to Beijing to pursue grievances against the government typically swells ahead of key political dates, as petitioners hope their cases will get a more sympathetic hearing.
Instead, many say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by the authorities if they try to petition a higher level of government.
China typically holds grand celebrations every 10 years to commemorate revolutionary leader Mao Zedong's proclamation of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949.
On the 60th anniversary in 2009, tanks rolled through the capital alongside a display of China's military hardware, amid the release of thousands of white doves and balloons, while all flights over the capital were grounded.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.