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.