Chinese authorities have cleared the streets of Beijing of petitioners and closed thousands of factories in neighboring Hebei province in a bid to banish smog from the capital city's skies ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum which opens Wednesday.
Thousands of ordinary Chinese who flock to the capital to pursue complaints against the government are being kept away from the forum venue near the northern suburb of Huairou, petitioners told RFA.
"If petitioners go anywhere near the venue for the leadership summit, even to check into a hotel, they will escort you back to your home province's representative office in Beijing," Heilongjiang petitioner Zhang Baozhu said.
"Security is incredibly tight right now, and most petitioners daren't make a move anywhere," Zhang said. "There are only three buses a day out there, because it's quite a long way out of Beijing."
"They won't even let us go as tourists to take photos. If they suspect you are a petitioner, they will take you back [to Beijing]."
"Most of the petitioners are keeping a low profile right now," Zhang added.
He said that a fellow petitioner from Mudanjiang had been detained by police at a relative's house in Beijing after she posted a complaint online about her forced eviction from her home.
"They probably used her smartphone to track her location," Zhang said. "She was driven back to Heilongjiang ... and she is pretty certain at least to be detained or, at the worst, locked in an asylum."
Many taken away
Huang Guangyu, a petitioner from the central province of Hunan, said police had raided the southern railway station neighborhood of Beijing in the early hours of Sunday morning, taking large numbers of petitioners away from areas where they typically congregate.
"They detained all the petitioners at about midnight and took them all to Jiujingzhuang, before sending them home," Huang said in a reference to a large, unofficial detention center on the outskirts of the capital.
Meanwhile, authorities in Shanghai have stepped up security measures aimed at preventing anyone from traveling to Beijing in the first place, petitioners said.
Petitioner Gu Guoping said he had been offered money by officials not to travel to Beijing ahead of a recent top-level political meeting.
"The complaints office offered me 2,000 yuan not to go to Beijing for 10 days; that's 200 yuan a day," Gu said.
He said around 20 out of 30 petitioners in his neighborhood had dropped plans to visit Beijing ahead of APEC because of the handouts.
Air pollution concerns
Back in Beijing, authorities are scrambling to minimize the capital's choking smog levels, which hit world headlines again during the city's marathon, as runners donned respirators and face masks to compete in hazardous conditions.
China's environmental protection ministry has 16 teams covering Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, as well as Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Shandong provinces, official media reported.
Half of all vehicles will be banned from entering the downtown area during the APEC forum, while work will be halted on all construction sites.
In neighboring Hebei province, authorities are shutting down or suspending production at 2,386 companies and 2,445 construction sites until after the end of the the leadership summit, which wraps up the APEC forum on Nov. 10-11, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported.
Beijing has also encouraged its citizens to leave town during the APEC summit, handing out a six-day holiday to public sector employees in an unexpected windfall for the country's domestic tourism industry.
And authorities have banned people from burning the clothes of dead relatives, which traditionally provides them with something to wear on arriving in the afterlife.
China's heavy air pollution once more made international headlines as last month as some 30,000 runners battled a thick white haze during the Beijing Marathon, with pollution levels at 16 times the World Health Organization's recommended maximum.
At Babaoshan cemetery on the outskirts of the capital, a notice informs mourners that "the incineration of the clothing of the deceased will be suspended" from November 1 to 15 due to APEC, the Beijing News reported.
"We kindly ask your understanding for any inconvenience this may cause," the notice said.
Vendors must close
Across the city, small-scale food vendors have been ordered to shut their doors from Nov. 1-13, local residents told RFA on Tuesday.
"During the APEC meeting, all businesses within the designated area, including kiosks, minimarts, steamed-bun stalls, pancake and hot snack vendors, food processing plants, and all fast-food outlets including cake shops must shut up shop," a notice sent to business owners and seen by RFA said.
A source who received the directive said it has sent a clear message to people who don't know what it's like to live in China.
"[It means] that there are no guarantees for anything under the Chinese system, not for your property or your rights," the source said.
Beijing-based rights activist Lin Yunfei said the measures are very similar to a slew of draconian restrictions imposed on residents of northern China ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
"This is system-wide, and they are paying attention to every last detail to get the perfect result they want," Lin said.
"Ordinary people have no standing in the eyes of a dictatorial government," he said. "Politics is everything."
Pressure on rights
The moves come after a group of overseas rights groups penned a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of his trip to the APEC summit, calling on him to put pressure on Beijing over human rights abuses.
"Your visit comes at a time of extraordinary and brutal repression of peaceful advocacy for human rights in China," the letter, published on the website of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
It cited the recent jailing of moderate Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, and the continued imprisonment of 2010 Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.
"We urge that you use this trip to make clear ... that the government's crackdown on civil society is a barrier to strategic partnership," the letter, signed by groups including HRW and Freedom Now, said.
"We urge that while in Beijing you again publicly call for the release of these two individuals, as well as the release of Liu's wife Liu Xia; human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who is not free despite having been released from prison; and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist leader whose health is reportedly deteriorating after a decade in prison," it said.
It said peaceful activists like human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, journalist Gao Yu, lawyer Tang Jingling, and the students of Ilham Tohti have also been subject to criminal prosecutions.
"Since President Xi [Jinping] came into power the government has redoubled efforts to criminalize online speech, silence journalists, and strengthen the ideological training of university lecturers, academic researchers, and party members," the letter said.
Reported by Yang Fan and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Luo Bote and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.