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Can Wen Jiabao reform the Communist Party of China?

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.

By Staff writer / October 15, 2010

In this Oct. 6 file photo, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao addresses the audience at the 6th EU China business summit in Brussels. The Chinese prime minister has called for change to China's political system repeatedly in the past few months.

Yves Logghe/AP/File

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Beijing

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.

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Leading the charge has been Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has repeatedly, if cautiously, argued the need for political change in recent months.

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 economic reform.

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 worry.

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.”

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