President Xi Jinping is gearing up for an important political meeting later in the year with ever-tighter policing of public speech, and plans to have his own version of political ideology enshrined in the ruling Chinese Communist Party's constitution, analysts told RFA.
The crackdown on any public comment not already sanctioned by the official media has been most starkly carried out in higher education, according to political commentator Wei Pu, who linked the trend to the 19th Party Congress expected in October.
Earlier this month, authorities in Beijing held Zhu Delong, a deputy professor at the Capital Normal University, for five days' administrative detention over posts he had made online criticizing a growing "cult of personality" around Xi.
But Zhu failed to reappear when that five-day jail term, which can be handed down by police without trial, was up, fellow activists said.
"I think we are seeing yet another escalation [in the crackdown on free speech]," veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin told RFA. "The available space for public debate is getting smaller and smaller; now you can't say anything that isn't flattering to the government."
Zhu's detention came after his friend, the Sichuan-based party ideologue Zi Su, was taken away by police after calling in an online letter for Xi's resignation.
Zi had written that Xi's "biggest mistake of all" was to institute a policy known as the "seven taboos," which ban any talk of democracy, rule of law, the separation of powers and related topics.
'Shock and awe' censorship
Hunan rights activist Zhou Jie said Zhu now appears to have broken one of those "taboos" himself.
"Controls over public comments are getting tighter as we head towards the 19th Party Congress," Zhou said. "They are using the so-called national security law to step up the pressure for some cases and incidents."
"The effect is one of shock and awe."
In January, Shandong Institute of Architecture lecturer Deng Xiangchao was fired for "incorrect wording" in his social media posts, prompting a nationalist flash-mob to show up and denounce him on campus.
More recently, Beijing Normal University lecturer Shi Jiepeng had his contract terminated on July 25 after being accused of posting "inappropriate comments" to social media, including WeChat, according to a copy of his termination letter posted on Twitter.
And Li Mohai, a deputy professor at the Shandong Institute of Industry and Commerce, was fired from his job after he criticized government propaganda via his microblog account.
Members of the Communist Party have also been warned in clear terms to stay away from the "wrong words" online, which it defines as anything that departs from the official line.
"Wrong words means anything criticizing Mao Zedong, the ideology of the Communist Party and its brainwashing education system, its history, of state capital ... or any negative content," political analyst Wei Pu wrote in a recent commentary for RFA's Cantonese Service.
"The seven taboos form the red line, the seven things which can't be spoken about," Wei said.
"As a result, there is no academic freedom in higher education, and online freedom has been greatly reduced," he said. "This ideological management is being extended ahead of the 19th Party Congress. No different opinions will be allowed."
'Xi Jinping thought'
Instead, "The Political Thought of Xi Jinping" will be enshrined by the Party Congress, Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo told RFA.
"Xi Jinping Thought will definitely make it into the party constitution at the 19th party congress," Zha said. "
"[Former president] Jiang Zemin had his Three Represents, and [former president] Hu Jintao had his Scientific Development ... but I think Xi will want his to hold a higher significance than Jiang's or Hu's political thought," he said.
China's leaders are currently believed to have spent 15 days beginning on Aug. 2 on an unofficial annual retreat at the beach resort of Beidaihe, where much of the preparation for formal congresses typically takes place.
The absence of top leaders from state media reports is a general indication that the secretive Beidaihe retreat is underway, as Xi prepares to install allies in top positions and press his agenda of tightened state control and muscular diplomacy, the Associated Press said.
The congress also comes amid growing speculation that Xi may be seeking to buck recent limitations on power at the highest echelons of the party by seeking a third term in the top spot, it said.
Hong Kong-based political commentator Willy Lam said Xi will likely pick poverty reduction as the main theme for the congress.
"The economic pie may still be growing overall, but it's still the political and financial elite who are getting the biggest slice of it," Lam said. "That includes the big eight elite families, and those who benefit from their wealth."
"And the proportion of the pie that is eaten by them is extremely large."
A Chinese scholar who asked to remain anonymous said there will be no significant break with the economic policies of the past, however.
"Urbanization is another aspect; there is a shrinking rural population as people head to the cities, and an increase in human capital," the scholar said. "Maybe they will see income growth, but the Chinese Communist Party has now placed a lot of barriers to this urbanization process."
"It takes three decades to acquire a Beijing household registration, so nobody can get them," he said. "And there is no state healthcare once they enter the cities; they can only claim back about 40-50 percent of their medical expenses."
Reported by Xin Lin, Qiao Long, Gao Feng and Gao Xin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wei Pu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.