HONG KONG — ; China's leaders began a top-level meeting in Beijing Thursday to discuss how to strengthen the Communist Party's grip on power, as the authorities launched a crackdown on any form of political dissent or protest.
Tens of thousands of ordinary people who have flocked to the capital with grievances against government officials have been rounded up by police and detained in camp-style conditions in a sports stadium in the west of the city, petitioners and rights activists told RFA.
"If power is not subjected to checks and supervision it easily gives rise to misuse and corruption."
"The crackdown on petitioners began early, and involved tens of thousands of people, many of whom have been rounded up and held in the basement of the Shijingshan Stadium," chairman of the New York-based Human Right in China, Liu Qing, told RFA's Mandarin service. "They are subject to beatings and humiliation from the police. This is very common."
The government regularly launches such crackdowns against political dissidents and those with conspicuous grievances who might cause trouble during high-profile events. It is increasingly sensitive to the threat of public unrest in the face of rampant corruption.
Some commentators linked the crackdown to a power struggle between various factions within the Party, which is already beset with rumors of a standoff between President Hu Jintao and his still powerful predecessor, Central Military Commission chairman Jiang Zemin.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the internal power struggle that's going on in the highest levels of the Communist Party at the moment," Guizhou-based human rights activist Zeng Ning told RFA. "One faction wants to get closer to the concerns of ordinary people, while another might be more concerned with the middle class, the bourgeoisie and so on."
On the CCP Plenum agenda for the first time is the issue of "improving the governing capability" of the Party, which is political jargon for strengthening the Party's grip on power. But China's leaders are well aware of the massive debt of social injustice which is building up against them via the actions of corrupt government officials.
"If power is not subjected to checks and supervision it easily gives rise to misuse and corruption," Hu told a rally celebrating the 50th anniversary of China's parliamentary system, the National People's Congress.
"Currently, there are laws but they are not followed. They are implemented, but not strictly," he said.
Local protectionism, power abuse and corruption had greatly impaired the image of the Party and the state, and harmed the interests of the state and the people, Hu said.
But perhaps aware of his political rivals waiting for a chance to point at weakness, Hu stopped short of advocating any more lasting changes in China's political system, however.
"History indicates that indiscriminately copying Western political systems is a blind alley for China," Hu said.
He said no Western democratic practices — ; such as separating the powers of the executive, legislature and judiciary and multi-party and multi-candidate direct elections at the top levels of government — ; would be implemented.
Many with experience at the highest levels of power in China disagree, however. Lin Mu is the former secretary to former liberal Premier Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the 1989 student protests in Beijing.
"The Communist Party is at the highest level of political power...It's not ideal to rely on the National People's Congress to supervise the Communist Party, because the representatives are not directly elected by the people," Lin told RFA's Mandarin service.
"You can't rely on individual officials at every level to solve the problem of [abuse of power]. It has to be a system-wide solution," Lin said.
Meanwhile the authorities are as tough on widespread political debate as ever. Officials had apparently blocked access to a vibrant political discussion board on the Yitahutu student Web site in recent weeks, students told RFA.
And a court in the northeastern city of Shenyang sentenced China Democracy Party (CDP) activist Kou Youping to 15 years' imprisonment for "subversion of state power", and fellow worker-turned-dissident Ning Xianhua to 12 years, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said.
On the Web:
Yitahutu Web site (in Chinese)
Hu Jintao's speech in full on People's Daily site
More on the fate of China's dissidents
Xinhua feature on women's rights activist