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.

Yves Logghe/AP/File
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.

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 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.”

“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.”

“Wen Jiabao is talking out of desperation,” adds Li Datong, the former editor of a party newspaper who was fired for reporting on sensitive issues. He was also a signatory of Friday’s letter calling for Mr. Liu’s release. “He sees clearly that nothing can be done in the next two years [before he steps down]… but he has to think of history’s judgment.”

Others are less harsh. “He sees the road is full of obstacles,” says Sun Xupei, former head of the Journalism Research Institute at a government-run think tank who signed this week’s petition for free speech. “He has only two years left and there are still no concrete plans” for political reform. “He must be getting worried.”

Wen faces opposition within CPC

Wen is apparently not alone within the Communist Party in his position. Party newspapers and magazines have carried numerous articles in recent months advocating political reform. But no other top leader has echoed his stance.

Indeed, influential leaders have turned their backs on it. Only days after Wen’s speech in the economic boomtown of Shenzhen, President Hu Jintao visited and pointedly argued that “we must…advance the socialist political system’s self improvement and development.”

Since then, two fellow members of the party’s top body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, have argued in print against the sort of ideas espoused by Wen.

“For every effort to put political reform back on the table there is an equal and opposite reaction visible in the official media,” says Dr. Moses, the political analyst.

That reaction, however, does not necessarily come from hardline reactionaries, Moses points out. Pragmatists are also afraid that “any discussion of politics carries the danger of sinking into a swamp of endless debate,” he says.

“There is anxiety in official circles that discussions of political reform would take the party away from what has made it successful, which is economic expansion," he adds.

Plenum unlikely to address debate

The very breadth and depth of the debate will likely scuttle discussion at this weekend’s plenum, says Mr. Li, the former editor of the party newspaper.

“It’s a huge issue,” he argues, and the appearance of competing arguments in the official press does not constitute the sort of detailed preparation and secretive discussion that precedes any major political decision in China.

The plenum might, however, indicate whether the Communist Party leadership is prepared to countenance any kind of debate over political reform, Moses suggests. “Are they willing to elevate the conversation beyond economics?” he wonders. “Are they going to confront the challenges facing China exclusively through economic means, or are they willing to embark on political reform?”

For the time being, Li is not hopeful. “Pressure from society to launch political reform is still not strong enough to force the government to do it,” he believes. “But that pressure is building.”

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