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Workers cover an art piece after it was deemed unfit for display by members of the cultural bureau prior the inauguration of the SH Contemporary Art Fair at the Shanghai Exhibition Center September 6, 2012.

STRINGER/REUTERS

The pot-bellied official in a tan golf shirt paused in front of a poster-sized image for a few seconds, asked a member of his entourage to make a note of it, then continued to lead the group on its awkward march through the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

A few hours later, the digitally manipulated photo of China's legendary Monkey King facing Tiananmen Gate, by Beijing-based artist Chi Peng, was pulled from the wall, one of several works at the SH Contemporary Art Fair deemed unfit for display by Shanghai's culture police.

Censorship of political content has long been a feature of the Chinese art world under Communist Party rule, but gallery owners and artists at SH Contemporary were told on Thursday that city officials were being extra careful ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition set to take place in Beijing next month.

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"It's especially sensitive this year because the 18th Party Congress will start soon," said a fair organizer after trying to convince another booth to remove a painting that censors didn't like because it appeared to include images of Mao Zedong.

The last-minute removal of art works, some of which had passed initial vetting for the fair, underscores the party's reach and the pressures building in the political system ahead of the secretive conclave that will anoint new leaders.

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