A prominent academic has launched a campaign for thousands of homeless people on Beijing's streets as China's top security chief warned of social unrest linked to growing poverty.
Rural development professor Yu Jianrong, a frequent critic of government indifference to the least privileged in Chinese society, launched the charitable campaign as thousands of people huddled into blankets in sub-zero temperatures in the underpasses of the capital.
"Yes, we are collecting," said Yu's assistant by telephone on Monday. "As soon as it arrives, we give it out."
"Are you a journalist? I'm very sorry, but I can't give press interviews ... I hope you understand."
However, Yu sent out a microblog post on Monday saying that after the first snow of the year in Beijing, a lot of petitioners went to his home and begged for help.
"Are we going to allow petitioners to die of the cold on the streets of Beijing?" Yu tweeted.
After 40 hours of fund-raising, more than 16,000 netizens had donated around 350,000 yuan (U.S. $55,000) in goods and money, organizers said via the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo.
Beijing-based political activist He Depu said that many of the people sleeping in underpasses and doorways in the capital are petitioners, ordinary Chinese pursuing lengthy legal complaints against alleged official wrongdoing.
"Today, I took over a quilt and some clothes for the petitioners," He said. "There is a lot of stuff in my home which I can give to petitioners."
"In the end I took it all over there in a taxi. They were very happy to get it, and the petitioners really need it," he said.
The campaign comes amid warnings from top Chinese security official Zhou Yongkang that the government will need ways to manage growing social unrest, as times get harder for many ordinary Chinese.
China has been hit by a series of large-scale strikes in recent weeks, as workers resentful about low salaries or layoffs face off with employers juggling high costs and shrinking demand from Western countries for their goods.
Zhou said on Friday that the authorities need to improve their system of "social management", including increasing "community-level" manpower.
"In the face of the negative impact of the market economy, we have not formed a complete system of social management," Zhou said in comments reported by the state Xinhua news agency at the weekend.
"It is urgent that we build a social management system with Chinese characteristics to match our socialist market economy."
The average income of the richest 10 percent of the urban Chinese population was 8.9 times that of the poorest 10 percent in 2009, compared with 2.9 times in 1985, recent government figures show.
U.S.-based academic Cheng Xiaonong, who formerly headed an economic reform think-tank under the aegis of China's National People's Congress, said the situation has led to burgeoning social unrest.
"Economically right now we are seeing a lot of protest activity which has no political demands," Cheng said. "For example, workers going on strike in factories in Shenzhen and demanding higher pay."
"But there is also widespread social dissatisfaction among young people," he said.
"I think the Communist Party is entering a new era in which the political suppression tactics of the past are having no effect, and it's hard to see how they can carry on down that road and still deal with the current situation," Cheng said.
U.S.-based lawyer Gao Guangjun, who graduated from the Public Security University in Beijing, said the economic demands of workers and land protesters have translated into very direct political pressure on China's rulers.
"These protests may seem as if there are no political demands; that there is no political goal, but in reality these sort of changes can very easily lead to political demands," Gao said.
"Zhou Yongkang and other Party officials have good reason to be nervous about what has been happening across China," he said.
"Once economic demands get to a certain point, they turn into political demands," he said, citing the uprisings in the Middle East earlier this year, which prompted a nationwide crackdown on rights activists and political dissidents across China.
Hu Xiaobo, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said that a huge amount of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people in China's cities.
"Overall, however, the income of urban dwellers is only three times that of rural residents," he said. "Perhaps this is a stage we have to go through on the road to development."
"China has yet to come up with a 'Chinese dream,'" he said. "This is very important ... whether or not people have any likelihood of being able to join the middle classes."
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by He Ping and Yang Jiadai for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.