In the absence of free political debate in China's tightly controlled media and websites, tensions between left-wingers and reform-minded liberals have emerged in recent days around a popular writer, as he takes to the road to promote his latest book.
Former journalist Li Chengpeng, who boasts a social media following of at least 6.5 million, was attacked by a man who tried to punch him at a book signing in Beijing on Sunday. Another man threw a gift-wrapped kitchen knife at him.
At signings in other Chinese cities since then, supporters of more liberal reforms, particularly freedom of expression, have faced off with ruling Chinese Communist Party diehards wearing Mao badges.
A pro-reform activist who gave only his online nickname Xiao Biao said he had witnessed a further confrontation between leftists and people who support Li's calls for greater freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
"I was watching the crowd from upstairs," Xiao Biao said. "There were leftists making trouble there, but the security was pretty tight."
"They didn't let them get anywhere near Li Chengpeng."
He said the leftists were shouting 'Down with Li Chengpeng,' and 'Li Chengpeng is a traitor,' however.
"They also had some placards; the leftists aren't very friendly," Xiao Bao added.
He said the face-offs were likely to foster further political debate among ordinary Chinese. "This is a sort of awakening of consciousness about what it means to be a citizen," he said.
Ordered not to speak
Li’s new book, The Whole World Knows, is a collection of essays on sensitive questions that have never been fully accounted for by the Communist Party.
Among the issues Li highlights in the book are the shoddy quality of school buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of students during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the alleged cover-up of the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed rail crash.
When the book tour reached the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu on Saturday, Li was handed strict orders from the authorities not to speak at the event.
"Someone just delivered a strict order: at my book signing event, I’m not allowed to talk; the readers are not allowed to ask me any questions; I can’t even introduce myself or say “Happy New Year, Thank you," Li wrote in a microblog post translated by the blogging platform Global Voices.
"I’m not even allowed to introduce the names of other guests at my event; they are not allowed to talk or answer any questions. They can only sit in the corner," he said.
"I deeply feel it’s against my understanding of dignity. They are crazy."
Smacked on the head
Hunan-based author Zhu Jinqin declined to comment on the gag order, saying it was "inconvenient" for him to give media interviews.
An eyewitness who saw one of the Beijing attacks, rights activist Zhou Li, said she was just behind the man who tried to punch Li in the line for the book-signing in Zhongguancun, in the western district of Haidian.
"He was sitting there signing books...and the guy in front of me just upped and smacked Li Chengpeng upside the head," Zhou said.
"After that he tried to run away, but he was stopped by the security guards; it seems like he [heard about it online]," she said.
As his book tour kicked off, Li had been publicly outspoken in support of the Southern Weekend, a cutting-edge Guangzhou-based newspaper that was at the heart of a row over political censorship last week.
Journalists at the paper, which stands out for its daring and in-depth reporting amid China's highly controlled media landscape, announced a strike earlier this month via social media in protest at heavy-handed censorship of the paper's New Year editorial.
The dispute sparked protests outside the paper's headquarters, and angry confrontation with leftists and government supporters known as the "50 cent party" because of a widespread belief that they are paid to hit back at the government's critics.
Under the terms of the Southern Weekend settlement, as reported by major Western news outlets, propaganda officials will refrain from rewriting articles before they appear in the newspaper.
However, there is little sign that the Communist Party's powerful but secretive central propaganda department will relax media controls.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.