Authorities in Beijing have conducted a widespread crackdown on dissent across the capital ahead of the annual meetings of China’s parliament and advisory body this weekend.

The “lianghui” – or “two meetings” – are the biggest political event of the year. The meeting of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, opens on Sunday and the meeting of the country’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), opens on Friday.

During the meetings, many petitioners flock to Beijing to try to be heard by higher officials in the capital.

Crowds outside the State Council complaints office in Beijing on Wednesday. Photo: RFA.

The petition system dates back to imperial times, though the current system was launched by the Communist Party in 1951. It allows citizens to redress grievances, but local petition offices do not have any real power to resolve issues. The power to do so often lies with the local governments who are responsible for them in the first place. They often use “interceptors” – government officials, police officers or hired thugs – to find petitioners and bring them home forcibly.

The BBC said on Friday that a camera crew had their cameras smashed and were forced to sign confessions as they tried to interview a petitioner in Hunan planning to travel to Beijing. The petitioner has since been held under unofficial house arrest, according to the British broadcaster.

US-backed news outlet Radio Free Asia reported that authorities launched a citywide crackdown in Beijing on Wednesday on thousands of petitioners who had traveled there to make complaints against local officials.

Eyewitnesses told the outlet that thousands of people were present at the complaints department of the State Council, and many were immediately taken away to unofficial detention centres or escorted home by “interceptors” from their hometowns.

Wu Jixin, a petitioner. Photo: Supplied to RFA.

Police have also increased raids on “petitioner villages” – slums housing petitioners in the city.

“The petitioner village in Beijing was raided by police yesterday morning at about 5.00 a.m., and [Shanghai activist] Cheng Yulan was forcibly taken away by 60 or 70 police officers and forced to return to her hometown,” Beijing petitioner Wu Lijuan told RFA on Wednesday.

RFA reported last week that interceptors barged into the hotel room of Han Suhua, a petitioner from Henan, was staying in the early morning of February 26.

Han Suhua and her interceptors. Photo: RFA.

Another petitioner told the outlet that Han locked herself into the bathroom and drank a bottle of chemicals to resist. She was sent to the hospital, and her current condition is unknown.

“Han Suhua said: if you have to limit my personal freedom, I will use death to resist. In the end, she ran to the bathroom and drank the chemicals,” the petitioner said.

Guangdong lawyer Liu Zhengqing was prevented from going to Beijing to carry out his duties on Monday.

He was stopped at the Guangzhou railway station, Liu told RFA.

“After they checked my ticket, he [police officer] said the two meetings were being held, and told me not to go,” he said.

Beijing lawyer Yu Wensheng also told the outlet that he was warned by the justice department not to speak out about his human rights work during this time.

“The Justice Bureau contacted me and told me not to speak out during this time… not to accept interviews during this time, and told me not to take certain actions during the two meetings.”

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.