Thousands of people converged on Chinese government complaints offices in Beijing on Wednesday, ahead of the anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, and amid tight security targeting dissidents and relatives of victims.
Petitioners, many of whom are forced evictees and farmers who have lost land to development projects, typically flock to Beijing on key political dates in the hope that their cases will receive a more favorable hearing.
Petitioner Li Min from the southwestern province of Sichuan said he had arrived outside the "letters and visits" bureau of China's cabinet, the State Council, at 7:20 a.m. local time.
"There were already about 1,500 people gathered there, and when I had registered with my ID and got inside, there were more than 3,000 inside as well," Li said.
He said some 5,000 were gathered in the alleyway that leads to the complaints offices of the State Council, the National People's Congress (NPC) and China's ruling Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, by the time he left at 11:00 a.m.
Thursday marks the anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown on student-led democracy protests in nearby Tiananmen Square.
"The petitioners were saying that June 4 is nearly here, so everyone wants to come here to make the government pay attention to them," Li said.
Li said "interceptors," officials and police officers tasked with escorting petitioners back to towns and cities across China, were also out in force.
"There were a lot of interceptors, around 1,000 of them," he said. "There were police cars with plates from across China on both sides of the entrance to the alleyway, and ambulances, too."
"There were two long lines of people on both sides of the street, and the interceptors were taking petitioners away," Li said.
A second petitioner surnamed Wu confirmed Li's account.
"We got to the State Council complaints office in the morning, and there were a lot of people there, possibly four or five thousand of them," Wu said.
"They were all wearing smart clothes. A lot more were coming into the alleyway as well," he said.
A Heilongjiang petitioner surnamed Chang said that many more petitioners had arrived in Beijing to pursue complaints in other locations, however.
"There are more than 5,000 people," Chang said. "I heard police in [the southern Beijing district of] Fengtai say that there were 480 households who had come to petition there."
According to Chongqing petitioner Zou Maoshu, many of the petitioners have traveled to the capital in large groups.
"Some are here on collective petitions, perhaps because of land requisitioning or forced evictions," Zou said.
"These are the sorts of issues they want to complain about."
Top-level political meetings have long been a magnet for the vast number of Chinese people who pursue complaints against their local governments, often for years at a time and with scant hope of redress.
But petitioners who arrive in the capital on the sensitive anniversary of the 1989 massacre face increased security, body scanners and bag searches for documents, as the government seeks to prevent any public show of mourning or protest linked to the anniversary.
Dozens of dissidents and rights activists across the country are currently under police surveillance, with some forced to go on "vacation" away from their hometowns with state security police until after the anniversary.
Thirteen people remain behind bars for marking the 25th anniversary of the bloodshed last year, according to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates reports from rights groups inside China.
They include veteran political journalist Gao Yu, jailed for seven years in April for "leaking state secrets overseas," and prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who faces up to 10 years' imprisonment for each of the ethnic hatred and public order charges against him.
CHRD called on the government to end its policy of continued repression towards activists like Gao and Pu, and other veterans of the 1989 democracy movement.
"It is imperative that the Chinese government end its policy of denial and deception regarding the violent suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations," the group said in a statement on its website.
CHRD said China's record on the prevention of torture is up for review this year at the United Nations, citing Beijing's obligations to prevent cruel and unusual punishments from being meted out to prisoners of conscience.
Beijing should immediately release individuals detained for organizing activities to mark the 25th anniversary in 2014 and in the run-up to this year’s anniversary, the group said.
"[The government should] free all 1989 participants detained or imprisoned for their ongoing activism, as well as all other prisoners of conscience in China," it said.
"Chinese authorities must end the ongoing suppression of families, survivors, and supporters who demand accountability for the human rights abuses committed in 1989 ... and its targeted persecution of members of civil society who participated in the 1989 movement," it said.
Tiananmen Mothers victims group activist Zhang Xianling, who lost her 19-year-old son during the crackdown, said she is currently under close surveillance at her home, with seven or eight state security police on duty around the clock.
Zhang, who doesn't know whether her son Wang Nan died instantly after being shot on a street to the south of the square, or whether soldiers prevented an ambulance from taking him for emergency treatment, as one account suggests, said she had refused to promise not to give media interviews around the June 4 anniversary.
"Under such circumstances, that we have no power to change, we will continue to protest," Zhang told RFA on Wednesday. "I told them that unless they kill me, I will carry on speaking out."
"If they stop the journalists coming, then I'll speak out on the phone," she said. "I will use whatever means I can to make sure I am heard."
Zhang said the anniversary of the crackdown, when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) deployed troops with tanks and machine guns to end several weeks of student-led mass protest on Tiananmen Square, was a difficult time of year for her.
"It's a very sad day already, and my home is under surveillance, which makes it sadder, actually," Zhang said.
According to Zhang, Tiananmen Mothers founder Ding Zilin had planned to commemorate the death of her 17-year-old son Jiang Jielian at the Muxidi bridge in western Beijing, but the authorities had sealed off the subway station exit where she had planned to lay a wreath.
A deleted post on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo confirmed Zhang's report.
"The northwestern exit (exits A1 and A2) of the Muxidi station will be under temporary closure measures from 6:00 p.m. on June 2 until the last train on June 4," the tweet, reposted on the FreeWeibo anti-censorship website, quoted a passenger notice at the Muxidi station as saying.
The death toll from the night of June 3-4, 1989, when PLA tanks and troops entered Beijing, clashing with civilians armed with petrol bombs, rocks and other makeshift weapons, remains unknown to this day.
While the Chinese government once put the death toll at "nearly 300," it has never issued an official toll or list of names.
A 2009 map published by the Tiananmen Mothers listed more than 250 names garnered from confirmed eyewitness accounts and hospital records of those known to have died in the days after June 3.
According to the map, which pinpoints the exact spots in Beijing where the victims fell, at least 37 people died near the Muxidi subway station.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.