Beijing steps up security, raids ahead of NPC meet

TIGHT GRIP: Aside from assigning a massive contingent of security workers to man the event, the government had detained hundreds of activists in raids this week


Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 4

Security was tight yesterday in Beijing ahead of the annual session of China's parliament, with police stepping up street patrols and activists reporting continued harassment.

Both armed uniformed and plainclothes police patrolled the streets of the Chinese capital, keeping watch on public transport, tunnels and key buildings.

Dozens of plainclothes officers were patrolling around Tiananmen Square just next to the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress, the world's largest legislative assembly, will convene today.

The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, yesterday entered a second day of meetings.

A 12,000-strong "special police force" was part of a massive contingent of 620,000 "security workers" -- including city security guards as well as retired citizens -- on hand for the event, the Beijing Youth Daily reported this week.

China's so-called "petitioners," who have come to Beijing each year to air their grievances, said hundreds, or even thousands, had been detained after various police raids this week.

They said scores of petitioners were congregating around the Supreme Court yesterday to seek legal redress for problems ignored by courts and police in their home provinces.

The petitioners have become a high-profile symbol of China's social ills and a nuisance for the nation's leaders as they try to otherwise convince the public of the importance they have placed in developing a "harmonious society."

Meanwhile, a Chinese lawyer whose hunger strike in protest of violence against dissidents galvanized other activists into a rare nationwide show of support was detained by authorities yesterday, the lawyer and a friend said.

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) got into a "clash" with plainclothes policemen on his way to work and was later taken away by three state security officers, said Gao's friend, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

The friend said Gao told him the plainclothes officers started the scuffle, which lasted about 30 minutes. He didn't have any more details.

"He called me after it happened and sounded very worried," the friend said.

In a brief telephone interview, Gao said he was being held at a local police station.

"They haven't given me a reason and they are not letting me go," Gao said. He then said he had to hang up.

Gao has represented clients who say their land has been seized by corrupt officials, Falun Gong followers who complain of police abuse and members of China's underground churches, groups which have not been approved to worship by the officially atheist government. He is also known for sending open letters to Chinese leaders criticizing government policies.

Gao was stripped of his law license in December and is under constant surveillance by security agents, a common situation for dissidents.

The dissident lawyer initiated the hunger strike on Feb. 6 and said last week that almost 1,000 people from around China and Taiwan -- including prominent dissidents -- had volunteered by telephone or e-mail to participate in the protest.

The widespread support and relative success in organizing such a movement is surprising at a time when nearly all of China's leading dissidents have been jailed or driven into exile by the ruling Communist Party.

Gao said the hunger strikes would stop if authorities release dissidents sent to labor camps, a way the leadership reforms activists.

Since Feb. 15, Gao said at least 10 people have been detained in connection with the protest and held without charges in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the southern Chinese provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan.

They include Hu Jia (胡佳), a Beijing-based AIDS activist, who disappeared on Feb. 16, and Yu Zhijian (俞志堅), who was imprisoned for 11 years for tossing paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) that overlooked the 1989 Tiananmen square pro-democracy protests.

His girlfriend said last week that Yu was detained on Feb. 18 after beginning a hunger strike and was being investigated for subversion of state power.