As China's ruling Communist Party holds its most important conclave in five years, the government has launched an unusually harsh crackdown on potential troublemakers, say Chinese and international human rights groups.
Scores, perhaps hundreds, of petitioners, democracy activists, religious figures, and human rights workers have been abducted, imprisoned, or confined to their homes over the past six weeks, according to rights monitors.
"This definitely seems to be the worst in years," says Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It is much, much more comprehensive and wide-ranging" than earlier sweeps.
So, as delegates to the ruling Communist Party listen to their leaders' speeches and discuss the state of the nation at their 17th Congress here this week, at least one voice will not be heard: Yu Tongan, a peasant farmer in southern China. He would never have got into the most important meeting on the Chinese political calendar. But in the time-honored tradition of petitioners, he had hoped to buttonhole one of the delegates to seek redress for his son, who suffered brain damage after a government-mandated vaccination. Instead, he is trapped in his village by two plainclothes policemen standing guard outside his front door since Thursday. "I just wanted to find someone who would talk to ordinary people," Mr. Yu explained by telephone from his home. "But the police told me I am not allowed to leave or I will be arrested."
Move keeps Party meet protest free
The goal of keeping Yu, and others like him, away from the capital "is to sterilize Beijing of potential public protests that would embarrass the party" during the Congress, says Mr. Kine.
"It seems to reflect a desire by some elements in the Chinese government to put a very calm facade over public events."
At the Congress, party members select a new 190-member Central Committee that in turn appoints the Politburo, and set the course for the next five years.
Earlier this year, a Chinese human rights group published what it said was the text of an internal speech by Yu Hongyuan, deputy head of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, advocating "harshly penalizing one person in order to ... frighten many more into submission."
That is what Li Heping, a dapper young lawyer who has made a name for himself defending dissidents, says he believes happened to him on Sept. 29.
After leaving his office in the company of one of the policemen who has been shadowing him for months, he says, he was forced into a car by four men in civilian clothes, who covered his head with a piece of cloth and drove him to an unknown destination.
In what appeared to be a basement, he says he was beaten unconscious by men armed with tire irons and electric cattle prods. He was then released in the middle of the night in woods outside Beijing with a warning to leave the capital and give up his law practice.
"The government says it wants a harmonious society, but what happened to me was a slap in the face for the rule of law," Mr. Li says. "The trouble is that when people demand that the government respect their rights, and the government cannot do that, then they are seen as enemies."
Other such "enemies" caught up in the current crackdown include one of Li's clients, Gao Zhisheng, another lawyer who recently wrote an open letter to the US Senate in favor of greater freedoms in China and who has not been seen or heard from since Sept. 22 when police raided his home.
A well known election activist, Yao Lifa, has been missing from his home in Hubei Province since last Sunday, according to his son. Family members told reporters that Ye Guozhu, who has protested the eviction of tenants to make way for Olympics projects, has been held, along with his brother and son.
Anonymous victims include scores of petitioners whose shelters have been destroyed in recent weeks and who have been taken into custody. Reuters news agency last month revealed the existence of a secret detention center in Beijing run by officials from the town of Nanyang in Henan Province where more than a dozen petitioners were being held in a two-story cell block.
A "dry run" for the Olympics?
"We really have no idea how many" people have been detained in recent weeks, says Kine, "because so many of them are marginalized and do not appear on the radar" of human rights organizations.
Human Rights Watch is worried, Kine adds, that "this might be a dry run for the Olympics," when the government will also be concerned to keep potential troublemakers out of public view.
"They have the template," he says. "Given the relative success they have had in sweeping people off the streets this time, there is no reason why they won't do it again ahead of the Olympics."