BEIJING—During her 30-hour train journey to Beijing, Wang Xiulan ducked into bathrooms whenever the conductors checked IDs. Later, as she lay low in the outskirts of the capital, unidentified men caught her in a nighttime raid and hauled her to a police station. She assumed a fake identity to get away, and is now in hiding again.
Wang’s not a criminal. She’s a petitioner.
She’s among many people attempting to bring local complaints directly to the central government in an age-old Chinese tradition that has continued during the Communist Party era. But police never make that easy, and this week, as an all-important leadership transition begins, a dragnet is aimed at keeping anyone perceived as a threat or a troublemaker out of Beijing.
“There is no law in China, especially for us petitioners and ordinary folk,” Wang, 50, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Even common gangsters and hoodlums get to leave after they serve time for crimes; but for us, if we get locked up, we never know when we might be freed.”
Authorities want no surprises as the handover of power begins in the capital on Thursday. The transition already has been rocked by the party’s messiest scandal in decades, involving a former high-flying politician now accused of engaging in graft and obstructing the investigation into his wife’s murder of a British businessman.
Rights groups say the wide-ranging crackdown on critics bodes poorly for those who hope the incoming generation of leaders will loosen restrictions on activism.
“China’s top political leaders are very nervous, as they have since early this year been consumed by one of the most destabilizing and disharmonious power struggles in decades,” said Renee Xia, international director of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The group estimates that hundreds or thousands of people have come under some kind of restriction in preparation for the party congress.
Lawyers have been held under illegal house arrest, dissidents sent back to their hometowns and activists questioned. Internet users report difficulties accessing many websites and the failure of software meant to bypass Internet filters.
Veteran activist Huang Qi, who runs a website on petitioners like Wang, said nearly 1,000 people have contacted him over the past few weeks to complain that authorities have hired thugs to harass and beat them.
“I hope that the Chinese authorities will face up to the social problems,” Huang said in an interview. “Using violence will only escalate the resistance.”
The crackdown reflects the leadership’s nervousness as slowing economic growth exacerbates public outrage over corruption, social injustice, pollution and favoritism toward state-run agencies and the elite at the expense of ordinary people.
Under normal circumstances, petitioners are relatively safe once they reach Beijing’s outskirts, though in their home provinces they are almost perpetually on the run from hostile local officials or thugs-for-hire who want to nab them before they can get an audience with central government agencies.
Now, however, even the capital’s fringes are off limits.
Wang, a petite woman with shoulder-length hair neatly tied back, has been trying for two decades to draw central government attention to what she says was police mishandling of a serious assault she suffered in her native Harbin. Not only did her attacker go unpunished, but Wang ended up getting dismissed from her job years later.
Wang arrived in late October in Lu Village in Beijing’s southwest, where petitioners have sought refuge for years. A police post guards the road into the village, and residents say officers have lately blocked petitioners from entering.
Wang had rented a bed—a wooden plank on bricks—in a tiny concrete room shared with two others. A gang of two dozen men barged in one night at 11 pm, demanded to see her ID, searched her belongings and grabbed her cellphone.
“I was scared to death when they suddenly barged in here,” Wang said, pointing at the door, where the lock had just been replaced.
The men refused to identify themselves and bundled her into a minivan with other petitioners. At another stop, she saw a couple dragged into the vans in their pajamas, the woman wearing only one shoe.
All were taken to a police station in nearby Jiujingzhuang village, where many petitioners say police process them for return to their hometowns. Using someone else’s identity, Wang was able to evade police suspicion and was released. Many of the others were sent back, she said.
The raids are having an effect. The compound that houses her room and others now has only a handful of residents, down from about 30.
“They’ve all been chased away, caught or scared home,” said Liu Zhifa, a 67-year-old petitioner from Henan province and one of the holdouts. Liu confirmed Wang’s description of the Oct. 31 raid and described his own encounter with thugs breaking his lock and entering his room three times in one night in mid-October.
“I asked them to show their identifications, and they yelled at me, saying ‘What right do you have to see our identification? Who do you think you are?’” said Liu. “They were ruthless. The authorities and the police are working with people in the underworld.”
A police officer who would only give his surname, Wei, answered the phone at a Jiujingzhuang police station (not ‘the’ because the police station has another name) and denied that authorities were raiding petitioners’ villages. “We only act according to the law,” Wei said. Questions about the broader crackdown were referred to the Beijing public security bureau, which did not respond to faxed questions.
The crackdown has extended to lawyers such as Xu Zhiyong. He said Beijing authorities have held him under informal house arrest since mid-October, stationing four or five guards outside his apartment in Beijing around the clock.
Xu has campaigned for years against Chinese authorities’ use of “black jails,” or unofficial detention centers run by local governments to hold petitioners. The government has denied the existence of such facilities, but even the tightly controlled state media have reported on them.
“The illegal restriction of a citizen’s personal freedom for a long period of time is criminal behavior,” Xu wrote in an email. “In an authoritarian state, this type of crime takes place everywhere.”
Authorities in Shanghai also have ratcheted up pressure on critics, sentencing veteran women’s rights activist Mao Hengfeng to a year-and-a-half in a labor camp. Mao, accused of disturbing social order, had been detained in Beijing in late September, said her husband, Wu Xuewei, who indicated she was being put away to silence her before the party congress.
Even dissidents’ relatives have come under pressure. Beijing activist Hu Jia said he was warned by police to leave town, and that even his parents told him that police had told them to escort him to his hometown.
“My parents said to me: ‘Hu Jia, you don’t know what kind of danger you are in, but we know,’” he recounted in a phone interview from his parents’ home in eastern Anhui Province. “They said: ‘Beijing is a cruel battlefield. If you stay here, you will be the first to be sacrificed. Don’t do this.’”