A two-day plenum of the Communist Party opened amid calls for
relaxing China's repressive one-party rule. Prime Minister Wen
Jiabao has called for political change in recent months.
A new surge of demands for liberal political reform added an
unexpected twist to deliberations at today's annual policy making
meeting for leaders from the ruling Communist Party of China.
Leading the charge has been Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has
repeatedly, if cautiously, argued the need for political change in
And though he has often seemed a voice crying in the wilderness,
two open letters released on the eve of the three-day Central
Committee plenum that began Friday have given weight to liberal
efforts to relax China's repressive one-party rule.
One letter, a remarkable plea by 23 former senior officials,
including a former secretary to Mao Zedong, urged an end to press
censorship. Another, signed by a wide range of liberal
intellectuals, called for the release of imprisoned dissident Liu
Xiaobo, who last week won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Neither demand is likely to be met. Nor are there any signs of an
impending change in China's political system. But the public letters
on the Internet and Mr. Wen's advocacy of reform "are part of a
package to put political affairs at the forefront of party
discussion" after more than 20 years of focus on the economy, says
political analyst Russell Leigh Moses.
Stimulus plan benefited state companies
The plenum, shrouded in secrecy, will debate the next five-year
economic plan, according to official statements. It is expected to
endorse a shift away from exports and toward domestic consumption as
the main engine for economic growth.
But a number of Chinese economists and Wen himself have openly
questioned whether continued economic progress is possible without a
looser political framework. "Without the safeguard of political
reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost and the goal of
modernization would not materialize," Wen said last August on a
visit to Shenzhen, a crucible of Chinese free market experiments.
Since the global financial crisis, Beijing's economic stimulus
has largely benefited state-owned enterprises, which have clawed
back influence they had lost to the private sector over 30 years of
In a quasi-market system, this has given the government new
economic power that cannot be challenged without political freedom,
threatening the continuation of economic reform, liberal economists
Is Wen serious about reform?
Some observers doubt the sincerity of Wen's declarations, the
most recent of which he made in an interview with CNN when he said
"the people's wishes for and needs for democracy are irresistible."
"He realizes that there is no possibility of his words being
translated into actions," says Willy Lam, a veteran reader of
Chinese leadership tea leaves who teaches history at the Chinese
University of Hong Kong. "I suspect he is doing it for his own
legacy; he wants to be remembered as someone who made an effort. …