China's leadership has something radically new to contemplate amid the flutter of paperwork set before them at this month's annual National People's Congress.
All Party Central Committee members, high-level government officials, and the foreign media received copies of a signed essay, calling for a complete overhaul of China's political system - including such radical notions as elections at all levels of government, freedom of the press, the establishment of multiparty systems, and a reversal of the official account of the Tiananmen demonstrations.
It wasn't the creation of any diehard dissident. "China Needs a New Transformation - the Democratic Faction's Program Proposals," was written by Fang Jue, a former deputy director of the Planning Commission in China's coastal city of Fuzhou. He now runs a Beijing trading company.
"China is moving toward a crossroads where, without complete transformation, it can neither continue its modernization drive nor be allowed to enter the ranks of the world's civilizations," wrote Mr. Fang.
His brief but thoroughly researched proposal contains the most comprehensive, liberal, and mature ideas for political reform to appear publicly in recent Chinese history.
These are the main points in his essay:
* Freedom of the press is essential to democracy in China.
* Chinese citizens should be free to form both political and nonpolitical organizations, with protection for diverse opinion tolerated.
* Party control over executive and judicial branches should be eliminated. Reform should start at the local level. Elections open to all candidates should occur at all levels.
* China should quicken its pace toward a market-oriented economy and open its markets further to free competition by ending subsidies to state-owned industry. Private and foreign-owned businesses should enjoy equal treatment with the public sector.
* China should use peaceful means to settle its territorial disputes with neighboring countries, stop the practice of using arms proliferation issues as a bargaining chip to deal with other international issues, expand human rights dialogue with international organizations, control its military budget, and expand its ties with the US.
* China should maintain Hong Kong's current political system, open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama on Tibetan autonomy, if not full independence, and respect the will of the Taiwanese.
Fang's ideas push the envelope for the political reform movement that started within the Communist Party when Deng Xiaoping came into power in the late 1970s. He opposes one-party monopoly.
While political reform stalled when Party conservatives cracked down in the troubles of 1989, dissidents and scholars continued the struggle undaunted, attempting to exert pressure from outside the system. These dissidents are the main force for democracy in China. But they have not produced a proposal as complete as Fang's.
His essay has come out at a time when talk of political reform is still taboo. The fact he's been bold enough to circulate his essay and contact foreign media indicates that he's not alone. He has the backing of a group of powerful young and middle-aged Party officials, a group that grew up in the chaotic years when Mao's leftist policy ran rampant. Well-educated and experienced, the group is well-versed in the workings of Western democracy and is deeply dissatisfied with the present structure of government, especially since the recent 15th Party Congress failed to produce any reform.
In contrast to dissidents, Fang and his group of modern democratic thinkers within the Party have vested interest in the current system. Despite their differences, the recommendations contained in his essay could bring both dissidents and Party reformers together, laying a foundation for future dialogue and cooperation.
Although Fang's proposals weren't included on the formal legislative agenda, it's certain that his maverick ideas are on the minds of Chinese leadership.
His treatise offers a ray of hope to China's democratic movement. Fang's group can become a new political force that will eventually lead to dramatic changes in the Party, and China itself.
* Sam Chen is a legal scholar and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Wen Huang is a feature editor for a Chicago-based Chinese newspaper.