HONG KONG—Thousands of ordinary Chinese people seeking redress for complaints against official abuse of power have converged on Beijing, where tensions are simmering ahead of the country's annual parliament, and police are rounding up hundreds of people under a tight security regime.
"The police were loading the petitioners into vans, one by one," an eyewitness told RFA's Mandarin service.
"Two policemen would escort one petitioner. This went on for about an hour-and-a-half, nearly two hours. The police vehicles were bumper to bumper, filling up and leaving," said the woman, surnamed Zhang, who had herself just arrived from Shanghai with a petition for the authorities.
Zhang said she had managed to avoid tight surveillance in her hometown by taking several trains in the middle of the night, finally arriving Tuesday at the Yongdingmen Railway Station in the southern Beijing suburb of Fengtai.
"You are not allowed to go to Beijing for petitioning purposes," she said. "There are people watching all the trains, following you ... They listen to your conversation. As soon as they know you are a petitioner, they detain you and escort you back to where you came from."
Several hundred people are thought to have been detained in the round-up. Those arriving at Yongdingmen, where the petitioners' squatter village is located, were taken to Majialou, further away from the city center, and officials from their hometown called to escort them home, sources said.
"Nobody slept here. They all ran away," Zhang said. "I know that this morning there were about 1,400 or 1,500 people at the complaints office of the Supreme Court, and the same number at the complaints office of the State Council. I really didn't think there would be so many people here today," Zhang added.
Another petitioner said the number detained must have reached one thousand, at least.
Beijing-based petitioners were also under tight surveillance ahead of the plenary session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC) which starts March 5. A session of its sister organization, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) begins March 3.
A Beijing woman surnamed Li said police officers were following her 24 hours a day. "If you go to the toilet, they follow you. If you go shopping, they follow you. He said to me, 'I want you to guarantee that you will not go to the parliamentary meetings.'"
Li said she had refused to cooperate.
"The NPC enshrined respect for human rights into the first clause of the constitution last year. So you're breaking the law to ask me this, I told him. The officer replied: 'What can we do? We do as our bosses tell us. Otherwise we would lose our livelihood.' That's what the police officer said."
Other petitioners said police had also privately expressed a sense of helplessness in the face of the petitioner crackdown.
"The police officer said: 'We don't like doing this, either.' We should be chasing those corrupt officials who run away with huge sums of money overseas,'" a woman surnamed Liu told RFA reporter Lin Di.
"And yet it's down to us police officers to follow these petitioners everywhere, drag them around from pillar to post. But it's still the people's money we're dealing with, and national coffers are empty.' I could see that the police officer last night was very unhappy about doing this work," Liu said.