At least two activists died in custody before or during China’s Communist Party congress and tens of thousands had their movements restricted, rights groups said on Monday. The action was part of the government’s “maintenance stability” campaign aimed at preventing any sign of unrest during the party gathering in Beijing, which ended last week, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said. The congress ushered in a once-a-decade leadership change, with President Hu Jintao stepping down from his top party post to make way for Xi Jinping, who is due to be named state president in March. CHRD – a nationwide network of activists in China who compile reports of human rights violations – said Zhang Yaodong, a petitioner from Henan province, was beaten to death in police custody in the capital on November 5. On Thursday last week, Chen Chengxiang, a petitioner from Hubei province, set herself on fire in protest over local corruption in front of the Beijing office that houses the UN Commission on Human Rights, the group said. Beijing police refused immediate comment on the two incidents when contacted by reporters, and it was not clear whether Chen survived her suicide attempt. Another campaign group, the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, said Xu Wanxia, 53, a petitioner from the eastern province of Anhui, was detained by police in Beijing on November 8 and pronounced dead in Anhui six days later. Xu’s body was covered in bruises, prompting her family to believe she was beaten to death, the group said. CHRD said that police had detained, put under house arrest, sent to labour camps or otherwise harassed a wide range of government critics, including political dissidents, human rights activists and academics. The group said hundreds of petitioners, Christian activists and rights lawyers were also targeted during the crackdown, adding that “up to 100,000 people” had been affected according to “conservative estimates”. Social unrest in China has risen markedly in recent years with an estimated 180,000 protests last year over a wide range of issues including corruption, government land grabs, police brutality and social welfare, studies show. To counter the instability, China allocated US$111 billion this year for “stability maintenance”, exceeding the nation’s declared defence budget.