China's ruling Communist Party leaders are meeting in Beijing to debate 'cultural reforms,' which some interpret as a tightening of control over media and the Internet, ahead of a leadership succession scheduled for next year.
With a worsening economic crisis overseas and a rapidly growing gap between rich and poor at home, Chinese leaders' focus on cultural matters is telling, one commentator said on Monday.
"The economic situation is quite serious and one that affects the whole of society," said retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang. "Why are they talking about culture?"
"I think their debate on culture is the Chinese Communist Party trying to protect its hold on power," he said.
While some netizens inside China dismissed the cultural theme as political sloganeering, political activists and petitioners said they had encountered closer surveillance than usual during the meeting, which closes on Tuesday.
Sina microblogger @yanwuersan analyzed the slogan of the plenum, concluding: "There is no such thing as an advanced or backward culture. The phrase 'sinification' refers to the fact that they refuse to incorporate universal values into their political design."
A microblogger nicknamed @xinyuan said the plenum was trying to sell "old wine in new bottles."
"It's like Han Han said in a speech at Xiamen University in 2009 ... China's leaders lack culture, and they fear culture, and they try to control culture."
The Party is gearing up for a power succession one year from now, when new leadership will be chosen following the resignation of President Hu Jintao as Party general secretary.
President Hu, his premier Wen Jiabao and the powerful Standing Committee will then relinquish all remaining leadership posts in 2013, with vice-president Xi Jinping widely tipped as Hu's successor.
Meanwhile, police in Beijing were at pains to ensure that no complaints reached the ears of the 500-odd committee members as they arrived at the gates of the secret Beijing venue for the meeting.
Shanghai-based petitioner Mao Hengfeng said around 2,000 petitioners were being held in informal detention at the Jiujingzhuang detention center on the outskirts of the capital.
"We have all been locked up in Jiujingzhuang," said Mao, who traveled to pursue a complaint about forced eviction together with a group of 70 fellow petitioners from Shanghai. "There are about 2,000 people being held here."
"We can't leave, and it's so crowded there is only room to stand up," she said. "Some people have been locked up here for three days. They were detained on Saturday and we don't know how long they will be held for."
Beijing-based dissident Hu Shigen said on Monday his home was being watched by police.
"It started the day before yesterday," Hu said. "On Saturday, they wouldn't let me go out. Today, I had to go out to buy some stuff so they sent some police to follow along behind me."
Hu called on the Party leadership to debate genuine political reforms.
"Only then would we see any real cultural development," he said. "Our culture should be a diverse culture, not a revolutionary culture."
Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo said his security detail had begun the day before the plenum began.
"The officers from the police station came to my house twice on Saturday," Zha said. "They told me I should clear it with them if I was going out."
"Yesterday the police came with me when I went to buy a newspaper and some groceries," he added.
Last month, China's propaganda chief spoke publicly about the problems of controlling the activities of the country's 500 million netizens, fueling fears that further attempts at control are on the way.
Many online activists have expressed concern that further controls over China's Internet users are imminent, especially in the wake of official campaigns against "rumor-mongering" via social networks and microblogging platforms.
The authorities also placed two popular Beijing papers under the supervision of the propaganda department, prompting fears the papers will face even tighter censorship.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.