HONG KONG—China has stepped up security ahead of its annual parliament, cracking down on thousands of petitioners in the capital after a man set fire to himself on Tiananmen Square.
"It's very tense around here at the moment," a resident of the Beijing squatter camp known as "petitioner village" told RFA's Mandarin service ahead of the plenary session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC), which opens March 5.
"There are a lot of plainclothes security men and a lot of police. In the evening they come into the village... taking photos and carrying video recorders," the woman said.
It's very tense around here at the moment. There are a lot of plainclothes security men and a lot of police.
Police said Tuesday they had already detained 448 suspects, partly as a result of an army of 650,000 volunteer informers who were keeping watch on the streets and alleyways of the capital, official media reported.
"In the area where I live, there are a lot of old ladies from the local neighborhood committee standing in doorways in the residential area, with red armbands on to keep an eye on anyone coming in and out," a Beijing resident surnamed Ma told RFA.
"This started around the time that former General Secretary Zhao Ziyang died [on Jan. 17]," he said.
Petitioners said security had been further stepped up after a petitioner from the northeast of China had set fire to himself outside the Mao Zedong Mausoleum on Tiananmen Square at the heart of the capital.
He fully intended to die, and for the whole world to know about it, for everyone on Tiananmen Square to know about it.
"There's no way he could have lived," a woman who knew the suicide protester's family told RFA.
"He was determined to kill himself. He had soaked himself from head to foot in gasoline. When they managed to extinguish the fire, he was eventually taken away in an emergency vehicle. The whole of Tiananmen Square was sealed off because of it."
She said the man had spent his last money on making 100 or more photocopies of documents related to his case and scattered them on the Square at the same time he set light to the gasoline.
"He fully intended to die, and for the whole world to know about it, for everyone on Tiananmen Square to know about it," she said.
Another petitioner said security was particularly tight on the Square following the incident.
"I went to have a look. There are hundreds of police and plainclothes security men there. Towards the evening, there were fewer police and more plainclothes security," he told RFA.
The authorities have banned any flights over the capital during the Congress and its sister organization, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
They have also stepped up controls over China's 94 million Internet users with a 24-hour monitoring system, official media said.
We have to beware of infiltration by hostile forces.
"Chatrooms and forums of major Chinese Internet portals will be monitored by 'security guards' at these Web sites. Any messages submitted by Internet users will go through rigid censoring and filtering before appearing on the Internet," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
And national security chief Luo Gan called for the authorities to crack down hard on spies, cult members, and Tibetan and Muslim separatists, in a recently published edition of the Communist Party magazine Qi Shi .
"We have to beware of infiltration by hostile forces," Luo Gan said in a speech reprinted in the magazine. "At present, hostile forces in China and abroad are increasingly collaborating.''
Canada-based independent Chinese writer Ren Bumei told RFA that while the authorities usually mount tight security operations ahead of major political events, this time the Communist Party had more than the usual worries on its mind.
"One reason is what is now being called the wave of petitioners ... The authorities are extremely scared that this wave will trigger a much broader social movement," Ren said.
He said that there was also a tense political atmosphere among the Beijing leadership, as the transfer of power to the next generation of leaders led by President Hu Jintao was due to be completed at this session.
"This is the Congress at which former president Jiang Zemin will finally say goodbye to political power. In the run-up to that, we have the recent death of Mr. Zhao Ziyang,...tensions in the Taiwan Strait and over the Diaoyu Islands with Japan," Ren told RFA's Mandarin service.
"All these factors mean that the Chinese government wants to adopt much stronger security measures than usual."