Authorities in Beijing have detained large numbers of ordinary people with complaints against the government after they tried to visit the homes of ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders ahead of the lunar new year festival, petitioners said on Thursday.
"There are petitioners from all over China inside the Dongjiaomin Alley police station," detained petitioner Chen Chunfang told RFA from inside the police station, which is not far from Tiananmen Square and government headquarters.
"We were walking along the street, and the police looked at our ID cards and detained us, driving us to the police station," Chen said.
"By evening, we were freezing cold, so they took us to Jiujingzhuang," she said, referring to an unofficial detention center for petitioners awaiting escort back to their hometowns, on the outskirts of Beijing.
One group of several hundred petitioners from Shanghai tried to visit premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping on the same afternoon.
"This afternoon [we] went to the homes of the premier and the president to wish them a happy new year," Shanghai petitioner Shen Yongmei said, as most Chinese sat down with their relatives for the annual family meal on the last day of the old year.
'Nowhere to turn'
She said the group had been driven to leave their own families behind out of desperation.
"Ordinary people have been left with nowhere to turn," Shen said.
"Why aren't we at home celebrating new year? Because we can't celebrate it...how can we, if ordinary people have no secure accommodation or work?"
She said many who had intended to join the group had been unable to get past police interceptors, while the remainder were lying low in Beijing to avoid police raids and patrols.
Authorities in the Chinese capital have stepped up police patrols and identity checks on streets and at intersections in recent days, raiding areas where petitioners usually stay and sending them to out-of-town detention centers, petitioners told RFA.
"We are hiding now, those that are able, but some were unable to leave Shanghai [because of the tight security]," Shen said. "There are already several hundred people here who were able to leave."
According to the Tianwang rights website, police have either detained petitioners seeking out China's leaders, or given them gifts of cash in a bid to mollify them during the festive season.
Also on Thursday, several dozen petitioners from across China unfurled a banner on the street outside the long-distance bus station in the southern district of Yongdingmen, which read: "Happy New Year to President Xi Jinping!"
One of the petitioners, who gave only her surname Shi, said she hoped Xi would do more to fight rampant official corruption, as he promised when he came to power last March.
"We can't go home for New Year, because all of our homes were demolished without any form of compensation, so we are homeless and can only wander the streets of Beijing," Shi said.
"That's why we are banding together to wish President Xi a happy new year, because we hope he will help us with our problems."
Shi said more than 1,000 petitioners were planning to converge on Xi's residence on Friday, the first day of the Year of the Horse, in a bid to take their grievances straight to him.
Many thousands complain
Nearly 20,000 grievances are filed daily to complaints offices across China in person, according to official figures released last November.
But many petitioners converge on major centers of government during high-level political meetings, in the hope of focusing public attention on their plight.
China has pledged to revamp its system for lodging complaints against the government as part of a package of reforms announced recently, but rights activists say the changes aren't likely to lead to more justice for petitioners.
Many petitioners are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income who live in constant fear of being detained by officials from their hometown, who run representative offices in larger cities for the sole purpose of reducing the number who complain about them.
Those who pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by the authorities.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.