The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tightened controls on prominent dissidents and rights activists ahead of its National People's Congress (NPC), which opens in Beijing on Friday, placing some under house arrest, while taking others out of town on enforced "vacations" under police surveillance.
Bao Tong, former political aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, has been warned not to give interviews or post any comments online for the duration of the annual NPC session, a person familiar with the situation told RFA.
"The relevant department contacted Bao Tong a few days ago and told him not to write anything and not to speak to the media," the person said. "No articles or tweets."
Outspoken veteran political journalist Gao Yu said she had been issued with a similar warning, and will remain under police guard at her Beijing home during the NPC session.
"I was notified by the relevant department that they would be placing a surveillance team in my yard," Gao told RFA. "They told me this [on Monday]."
Meanwhile, members of a prominent rights discussion forum in the southwestern province of Guizhou have been forced to take "vacations" in the suburbs of the provincial capital Guiyang ahead of the NPC session.
"The state security police called me on Saturday and told me I had to come in and be briefed about the situation," Guizhou Human Rights Forum member Li Renke told RFA.
"They told me they were taking me away at noon on Tuesday and that I should get ready," he said in an interview recorded before his departure. "They also told me that I couldn't bring my cell phone, and that it would better for me if I cooperated with them at this time."
Li said he fully expects other members of the Forum to be subjected to similar measures.
"I am guessing that the others will be in exactly the same situation," he said. "This is a coordinated operation, so they will definitely be taken out of town."
He said fellow Forum members Zeng Ning, Huang Yanming, Liao Shuangyuan, Wu Yuqin, Shen Youlian, and Yang Shaozheng would likely also be targeted for enforced "vacations."
"This will probably last for about 8-10 days," Li said.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Beijing have shortened the duration of the annual session of the NPC and of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) advisory body, which opens on Thursday, as well as postponing the return of higher education students from the Lunar New Year break to March 15.
"The duration of the meeting has been shortened," Gao Yu said. "The CPPCC opens on March 4, and the NPC will be over by March 11."
Petitioners sent home
A Beijing resident surnamed Liu said petitioners from other provinces are now being prevented from entering Beijing.
"They are stopping petitioners from the northeast in Shanhaiguan, and getting local government officials to come pick them up," Liu said. "Basically, they can't get as far as Beijing."
"Also, officials from the Beijing representative offices of provincial governments have been working with police in Beijing to go out to various villages and residential communities to check people's ID cards and photos [of people already here]," she said.
Anyone with a record of petitioning the authorities over official wrongdoing would immediately be escorted back to their hometown, she said.
Authorities have also stopped issuing press accreditation to visiting foreign journalists, and all press events will be conducted by video, with the authorities citing COVID-19 prevention.
Journalists already in Beijing will require vaccination certificates and COVID-19 test results to attend.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said in its annual report that many foreign journalists are stuck outside China, with one in six being forced to operate on a string of short-term visas of between one and three months in duration.
"China has used the coronavirus pandemic to create more restrictions for foreign press – restrictions that exceed those for everyone else," the FCCC said via Twitter, summarizing its report.
"Twenty-one percent said they were locked out last year, and journalists remain the one group of resident permits holders still barred from entering China," it said.
"Forty-two percent of respondents [to the annual survey] said they were told to leave a place or were denied access for health and safety reasons when they presented no risk," it said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Gigi Lee for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.