Activists locked up ahead of China's power handover

A Chinese police officer checks the identity card of a visitor on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Nov. 2, 2012. AP Photo

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 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 p.m., 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.

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