Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei detained two teachers this week, as dozens of contract teachers from around China launched fresh protests over pay and benefits, petitioners said.
The two teachers from Hebei said they were detained by local officials for more than 20 hours to prevent them from boarding a train to lodge their complaint.
"We wanted to travel to Beijing," said one teacher, Wang Xuezhou. "We had just had a meeting about it."
"We don't know how they heard about it, so that they were able to prevent us in that way."
Wang said some of the teachers had got to the capital, but had been detained in the middle of the night and brought back to their hometown.
Another Hebei-based teacher, Xu Linxiang, said he was detained for more than 30 hours after he tried to present a petition representing around 20,000 contract teachers in the province to the provincial government complaints office.
"They gave me the petition with all the signatures for me to take to the provincial government, and then the police came knocking on the door of my hotel room at 10 p.m. on Feb. 14," Xu said.
"They found 20 petition forms on me as well as a banner which read 'Teachers want a pension and a meeting with the provincial governor,'" he said.
Police had barred him from leaving his hometown for the next 20 days, Xu added.
"We have around 20,000 signatures of teachers, but altogether there are 100,000 of us," he said.
He said the group had been pressing officials for 10 years to honor a promise made by central government that contract teachers would receive the same terms and conditions as their civil-service status colleagues.
A second group from the eastern province of Anhui got as far as the central government's complaints bureau in Beijing, but was picked up by officials and sent home again.
"We have come to the complaints office today, but officials from our hometown wouldn't let us go in," said a petitioner surnamed Ma. "They said if we had a problem we should deal with it at a local level."
Many petitioners who travel to Beijing to complain are picked up by officials from their hometowns, who run representative offices in the capital for this purpose, and are then escorted back home, where they can face beatings, surveillance, and further detention.
"It doesn't do any good coming here," he said. "They won't let you register or fill in a form, and they try to persuade you, pull you away, and kick you out."
Ma said the teachers' identification had been taken by officials.
"We can't do anything without our ID," he said. "They are coming tomorrow to take us back home."
Contract teachers from all over China have tried to file high-profile complaints in recent months.
In November, a group of more than 200 non-civil service teachers from the central province of Hubei arrived at the education ministry Nov. 15 to complain about their contracts. In the same week, a similar attempt was launched in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
Teachers in China can be hired on civil service or non-civil service contracts, and those on the latter frequently complain of wages that are below a minimum living standard and often go unpaid for months.
Directive No. 32, issued by the central authorities in 1997, called on local governments to put all teachers on civil service contracts, which carry higher wages and more benefits. But cash-strapped local authorities have dragged their feet over the new rules.
China’s army of petitioners say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.