Chinese Premier Again Calls for Political Reform, But Will Anyone Listen?

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Feng Li / Getty Images

China's premier Wen Jiabao speaks during a news conference following the close of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at The Great Hall of The People on March 14, 2012 in Beijing.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s three-hour press conference at the close of the National People’s Congress, China’s annual Communist Party-controlled parliament, was his last before he is expected to step down next year. The content was similar to that of the past nine times Wen has addressed the media at the end of the NPC, but this time the tone was sharper. He warned, for instance, that further delays in political reform increased the risk of Cultural Revolution-type upheavals. It was the rhetoric of a man who knows his days in the bully pulpit are numbered.

Speaking at the languid pace of a teacher addressing a class of kindergartners, Wen welcomed public criticism of the government, slammed the Dalai Lama and expressed hope for the eventual reunification of China and Taiwan. He called for a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria. And he expressed hope that the rewards of China’s economic growth could be more evenly spread to poorer regions in the country’s interior, a goal he and President Hu Jintao have advocated since they came to power a decade ago.

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Wen is the Chinese government’s point man for responding to disaster. He consoles victims of earthquakes, droughts, floods and last year’s high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou. And he offers a soothing face to the outside world as well, offering assurances on everything from the rate of China’s economic growth to the rate of political change. He warned Wednesday that without political reform, China’s economic development will stagnate, social divisions won’t be resolved “and the historical tragedy of the Cultural Revolution may re-occur.” When Chinese leaders speak of political reform they don’t mean full democratization but rather “democratic supervision” — giving citizens a voice, and sometimes a vote at local levels, but always within the confines of a system run by the Communist Party. Even within such restrictions Wen is the leading — and some observers would say only — advocate of democratic reforms among China’s top decision makers. He said he paid attention to this out of “a sense of duty.”

Wen’s comments on the Cultural Revolution were interpreted by some observers as veiled criticism of Bo Xilai, the embattled party boss of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing. Bo, who has promoted a revival of Mao-era socialist songs and similar “red culture,” has been under fire since one of his deputies, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, appeared suddenly last month at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, a city about 200 miles from Chongqing. After leaving the consulate Wang was detained by state security officers and is now under investigation. Wen offered more explicit criticism when he was asked whether Wang’s case would affect public trust in either the Chongqing or national governments. The premier responded that the Chongqing government must “reflect and earnestly draw lessons from the Wang Lijun incident.”

When asked about the ongoing self-immolations in Tibetan regions, Wen said “we feel extreme sorrow,”  and the government “doesn’t approve of using these extreme methods to destroy social harmony.” Wen didn’t explicitly link the immolations to the Dalai Lama, but he blamed the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader of attempting to divide Tibet from China. Wen repeated the long-held view that China needs to further encourage economic development in Tibet. Such pro-growth policies have similarly been followed in the northwest region of Xinjiang, where some members of the Uighur minority group oppose Chinese control. The authorities’ hope is that development will eventually undermine resistance in those regions.

On Syria, Wen said that the Chinese government recognized the aspirations for democracy in the Arab world, and he called for an end to the bloodshed. His words were reminiscent of his first NPC press conference as premier in 2003, when he held out hopes for a peaceful settlement in Iraq. But there was a notable difference. Nine years ago China went along with U.N. resolutions against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Last month China joined Russia in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a sign that like Premier Wen himself, China will be a little more forceful in making its positions known.

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