China PM Wen Jiabao says political reform 'urgent'

At the end of China’s ritualistic annual parliament session, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went further than ever before in urging 'reform of the leadership system of our party and country.'

Ng Han Guan/AP
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao presses a button to cast his vote at the closing session of the annual National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, Wednesday. Wen, entering his final year as China's premier, called Wednesday for vague political reforms to forestall chaos and solidify growth as the nation's legislature approved a budget aiming to boost domestic consumption in the face of weak demand for exports.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao issued a strong call for political reform Wednesday, warning that unless the ruling Communist Party changes, China may lose its economic gains and fall back into political turmoil.

In his swansong press conference at the end of China’s ritualistic annual parliament session, Mr. Wen went further than he had ever done before in urging “reform of the leadership system of our party and country,” pressing a case that has so far appeared to gain little traction among his fellow leaders.

“Reform is at a critical stage,” Wen declared, and unless it moves forward “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.

“New problems arise, including income disparity, lack of credibility and corruption, and to resolve these problems requires economic reform and political reform,” he insisted. “This is an urgent task.”

Wen has made a name for himself as a would-be reformer and has spoken before about the need for political reforms to promote what he called “socialist democracy.” With one year left in office, says Beijing-based political analyst Russell Leigh Moses, “it is clear that he is unwilling to leave the table without putting political reform onto it.”

Whether he will be successful, as a new generation of leaders prepare to take the reins in China at next autumn’s Communist Party congress, is unclear, says Dr. Moses. “At the moment there is very little evidence to suggest that the issue is on the table front and center,” he says.

Wen also took the opportunity to strike out against one of China’s most controversial politicians, the Communist Party chief of Chongqing, in Southwestern China, Bo Xilai

Mr. Bo, who had until recently been considered a serious candidate for the top party leadership when it is chosen next autumn, has been hurt by a scandal involving his handpicked police chief, Wang Lijun, who is now in detention after apparently seeking asylum at a US consulate last month.

Bo had built his reputation on an anti-Mafia crackdown in Chongqing and a campaign there to revive Mao-era morality and revolutionary songs in what many saw as a nascent personality cult.

In the clearest criticism yet by a top Chinese leader of this approach, Wen took a swipe at Bo’s nostalgia for the Maoist period, which is far from fashionable in top Communist circles, stressing that “our practice … must be based on the experience and lessons we have learned from history, and … must be able to stand the test of history and reality.

“We must free our minds and seek truth from facts,” he said, citing Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum.

Bo has proved a resilient figure, and has many powerful allies in the Communist party. Wen’s unusually blunt remarks, however, suggest to most observers that Bo’s political ambitions are probably at an end. 

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