Two dozen people protested outside China's Foreign Ministry in downtown Beijing on Wednesday, using the 60th anniversary of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to decry a myriad of alleged government abuses.
Kneeling outside the front gate of the building, the group held up letters of complaints and called for redress for illegal detentions, government seizures of land and abuses by local courts.
One woman clasped a bright red copy of the constitution close to her chest, and another a white banner in English that read: "Safeguard human rights." Others held photos of relatives allegedly beaten in labor camps.
Many were petitioners, people who come to the capital to ask the central government for help against abuses by local governments, a centuries-old practice dating from days when people could petition the emperor. Many cannot air their stories in local media or courts, which are controlled by the Communist Party.
"Today is human rights day, but there is no human rights in China. I want my land, I want to eat," said Yang Guiyin, a middle-aged woman from Shanxi in northern China. She said her land was taken away four years ago for development and her house knocked down, but that the local government refused to give her compensation.
Yang said she had been sent to a labor camp on three separate occasions, where she was badly beaten.
Another protester, Zhang Zhenxin, has been petitioning for 10 years after his house in Beijing was destroyed to make way for a development project.
"Today is ... the day of the universal declaration of human rights. Today Beijing's petitioners are planning to submit to the Chinese government an agreement on protecting human rights," he said.
Protesters taken away
Beijing police contained the protesters behind a police rope, but let them continue for nearly half an hour, before they were herded onto a public city bus and taken away, pressing their complaints to the windows and shouting at foreign journalists.
"They are going to relevant departments," said one policeman, who refused to give his name.
The United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a year before the communists came to power in China. While not binding it has inspired many later human rights treaties.
It is unusual for petitioners to take their complaints to the Foreign Ministry, and they normally go to so-called "Letters and Visits" offices in the capital, which are supposed to receive grievances. Many are often followed by local police to the capital and taken back home.
Their plight is often ignored by Chinese media. But on Monday, the Beijing News newspaper published an investigative report that said provincial officials in a city in eastern Shandong province committed petitioners complaining about local corruption or land seizures to mental hospitals.