BEIJING — On a hot summer night about 10:30, the many men and women living under an elevated section of highway were trying to nod off, swatting the mosquitoes at their ears, shifting their hips uncomfortably on sheets of newspaper and cardboard strewn on the pavement, when someone shouted, "Police!"
By the time most could rouse themselves, it was too late. Police had blocked the routes of escape with large buses they would later use to cart away their quarry.
The bedtime bust was part of a massive Olympic cleanup, in which thousands of Chinese citizens are being booted out of the capital like gate-crashers at a party.
The underpass raid that began July 13 and continued for two days netted about 1,000 people. All were petitioners who had come to protest mistreatment in their home provinces.
Petitioning dates to the time of the earliest Chinese emperors and is enshrined in Chinese law. It is the most basic form of protest in China, with ordinary citizens pressing bread-and-butter concerns over unfair firings and arrests, misconduct and corruption by local Communist Party officials.
As part of its bid to host the Olympics, China promised to improve its human rights record. Last month, the government announced that it would go so far as to designate space in city parks where protesters could exercise free speech.
But such pledges come at the same time as the unprecedented crackdown in the streets. Along with beggars and pickpockets, the petitioners appear to top the list of the personae non gratae whom Beijing wants out before Friday.
The petitioners are living in the streets largely because the Chinese government, citing concerns over Olympic security, has in recent weeks closed down thousands of cheap hotels and basement apartments where rooms could be rented for less than $1 a day. The government has also demolished housing in entire neighborhoods where petitioners have lived.
"They are trying to drive us out of Beijing. They say we create a negative image. They treat us like refugees and criminals," said Wang Lijun, 37, who is petitioning to get a military pension for his father, a Korean War veteran who was stripped of all benefits after being accused of being an "anti-revolutionary" in 1958.
Wang was kept awake by the heat of the night on July 13 so he was able to jump to his feet quickly enough to escape by running onto the highway.
It is common for Chinese authorities to chase out petitioners during key events, such as the Communist Party congresses, but the intensity of the current effort is unprecedented, petitioners say.
"They are cracking down on us more than ever before. They regard us as enemies who will disrupt the stability of the country," said Li Li, 44, from Shanxi, who has been petitioning for seven years over her husband's firing from a management job at a steel plant. "They ask us to embrace the Olympic Games, to love their country, love the party. But they don't love us."
One popular spot for petitioners in recent days has been underneath the exit ramps of an elevated section of the Second Ring Road, an area known as Kaiyang Bridge close to the Beijing South Railroad Station and the Supreme Court. They hang out on the sidewalk, often holding dog-eared petitions that they thrust at anybody who will pay attention.
As many as 10,000 had been there until the crackdown. Now only a few hundred are left, and they face harassment or arrest. On a recent day, a woman was grabbed by four police officers who forced her into a police car and drove her away, according to several witnesses.
"She was yelling, 'Help, help.' It was like a kidnapping," Wang said.
"It was shocking. The police car didn't even have license plates," said petitioner Li, who also witnessed the incident. She believes police probably had come from the woman's home province of Heilongjiang to bring her back.
"They've been told that if any of their people disrupt the Olympic Games, they will be held responsible and could lose their own jobs. That is why they are desperate and will do anything to get them back," Li said.
The worst abuses are blamed not on Beijing police but on so-called retrievers, who are in effect bounty hunters sent from the provinces to return people home, receiving up to $700 per head. Petitioners complain that the retrievers loiter around railroad stations or the very offices where they are going to petition, eavesdropping to detect familiar dialects from their home province.
"Even getting off the train, I was worried they would see me," said Wu Huangying, 37, who arrived in Beijing in June to petition for the release of her younger brother, who she says was tortured into confessing responsibility for the bombing of a Communist Party office in Fujian province. "We can't go anywhere in Beijing without somebody asking to see our identity card."