Twelve people are in hospital in Beijing after two mass suicide attempts apparently triggered by failure by the authorities to look into their grievances, including forced evictions, witnesses said.
Five petitioners from the southwestern province of Guizhou on Wednesday attempted suicide in a Beijing police station by drinking pesticide simultaneously, an eyewitness said.
The five, who had pursued complaints against local government officials to no avail and were in the process of being detained at a Beijing police station, downed the pesticide within a few feet of an Anhui petitioner surnamed Zhu.
"There was an iron railing between us, and they were outside the security checkpoint and we had already passed through it," Zhu said.
"Then they drank the pesticide and fell to the floor."
She said one of the women had remained conscious briefly.
"We asked her where she was from, so we could send out a tweet on their behalf," Zhu said. "She said a couple of things, and then white foam started coming out of her mouth and she fainted away."
Zhu said police at the scene had stopped people from taking photos of the petitioners.
"When they fell to the floor, all the petitioners gathered round and started shouting, but the police corralled us and wouldn't let us see," Zhu said.
"One policeman saw me taking photos and dragged me into an office where he snatched my cell phone and deleted the photos," she added.
An officer who answered the phone at the Fuyou Street police station on Wednesday declined to comment on Zhu's account.
"I don't know about this," the officer said, before hanging up the phone.
Earlier, seven petitioners from the eastern province of Jiangsu had staged a similar collective suicide bid outside the offices of the China Youth Daily newspaper group.
"They have all been taken to hospital," an employee who answered the phone at the newspaper offices said on Wednesday.
But she declined to comment further. "I don't know about this," she said.
Media reports said the five men and two women from Qingyang township in Jiangsu's Sihong county had been taken to a nearby emergency room after swallowing liquid pesticide.
Complaints documents found on the petitioners indicated they were pursuing a complaint about forced eviction from their homes last year, and had been locked up in an unofficial detention center, or "black jail," by local officials in retaliation.
China's army of petitioners frequently report being held in "black jails," beaten, or otherwise harassed,if they persist in a complaint beyond its initial rejection at a local level.
"They probably had reached the end of the road and the end of all hope," a petitioner from the northeastern province of Liaoning surnamed Zhao told RFA.
"There are a lot of journalists outside a newspaper office, so it's pretty sensitive, and there is a chance it will get reported," he said.
"If they did it outside a government building, the authorities would lock down any information about it, and it would have all been for nothing."
Attempted suicides are growing increasingly common among disgruntled petitioners, many of whom are forced evictees, and most of whom pursue complaints against local officials for years or even decades with no result.
Tianwang rights website founder Huang Qi said his group now hears a growing number of reports of such protests across China.
"There were two cases of petitioners attempting mass suicide in Beijing today," Huang said. "The escalation in this sort of extreme incident shows that China's petitioners have nowhere to have their complaints heard."
"It also shows that the nationwide anti-corruption campaign isn't helping the interests of ordinary people at the grass-roots level," he said.
"The highest levels of leadership need to launch a high-level campaign immediately against corruption at the village and township levels, and to pay out compensation to disadvantaged groups, who are mostly farmers who have lost their land," Huang said.
On June 24, five petitioners who drank pesticide in a suicide pact in Beijing to protest their forced eviction "disappeared" after being taken to hospital, relatives said at the time.
And last December, 13 protesters staged a mass suicide attempt in Beijing after a failed bid to win compensation over forced eviction from their homes.
Petitioners file nearly 20,000 grievances in person every day to complaints offices across the country, according to official figures released last November.
The government's complaints website currently receives around 1,200 complaints on any working day online, many of them linked to forced evictions.
Violent forced evictions, often resulting in deaths and injuries, are continuing to rise in China, as cash-strapped local governments team up with development companies to grab property in a bid to boost revenue, rights groups say.
Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of attempted or completed suicide by self-immolation from 2009 to 2011 linked to forced evictions, compared with less than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.