CHINA'S premier did not mince his words yesterday. His message was simple: his country must change its political system or face a catastrophe on the scale of the Cultural Revolution.
Wen Jiabao spoke at the close of the National People's Congress in Beijing. His speech was extraordinary by Chinese standards and reflects a growing realisation that this rampant economy is fast reaching a watershed.
Mr Wen put it bluntly when he warned that China must change the "leadership structure" of the Communist Party and the country or risk stagnation and even chaos.
He said it was now an "urgent task" to press ahead with reforms or the enormous gains that China had made over the past three decades "may be lost".
Mr Wen warned that the new problems emerging in Chinese society, including a huge wealth gap, endemic corruption and a public distrust of the government, could only be solved with "more economic and political structural reform".
He continued: "(Otherwise), mistakes like the Cultural Revolution may happen again. Any government official or party member with a sense of responsibility should recognise this."
Mr Wen also appeared to point at Wukan, the southern Chinese village that has just held open elections after throwing out its Communist Party secretary at the end of last year, as an example of how democracy could spread in China.
"If a people can run a village well, I like to think that they could run a town, and if they can run a town, they can manage a county," he said. "We should follow such a road, to encourage people's bold practice and allow them to receive training."
However, he said that any reforms would have to be "step by step" and in line with China's national circumstances.
Mr Wen is due to step down in October and is ideally positioned to offer the sort of opinion that will raise eyebrows both at home and abroad. But by the same token, he expressed confidence in the next generation of Chinese leaders who would succeed him.
He began calling for political reforms at the end of 2010, but has seemed at times a lone voice, opposed by the Communist Party's more conservative factions and even being censored on at least two occasions by his own government.
While he did not spell out any concrete proposals, his latest comments quickly created a buzz on the Chinese internet.
"His answers to journalists are the most frank and interesting in so many years!" said the official microblog of the politics department of Jinan university.
The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Chairman Mao in 1966 and ended with his death a decade later. It saw cruelty and oppression on a horrific scale, with millions of people persecuted in what was essentially a war between factions of the Communist Party.
Mr Wen's critics were quick to point out that he had achieved no major political reforms at all during his 10 years in power and was only raising the idea now when he was preparing to step down.
"Essentially, what he is saying is that the situation is bad, the Cultural Revolution may happen again, but it is not his responsibility, he is leaving and whether the situation gets worse, or there is even a collapse, it is nothing to do with him," wrote one commentator on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
He added: "But he has governed for 10 years, so what did he do? Who is to blame?"
Mr Wen appeared to be aware of the criticism, adopting a humble position throughout the press conference.
"I feel truly sorry," he said. "Due to my incompetent abilities and institutional and other factors, there is still much room for improvement in my work. I often feel that much work remains to be finished, many things have yet to be properly addressed. There are many regrets."
MR Wen twice said that he would be judged by posterity, adding that he had the "courage to face the people and to face history."
He added: "There are people who will appreciate what I have done and also people who will criticise me. Ultimately, history will have the final say."
Chu Zhaogen, a researcher at the Chinese Public Policy Research Centre at Fudan university, said on Sina Weibo: "Premier Wen is worried that he will face unprecedented criticism when he retires. German newspapers are already saying that the 10 years of his government are '10 lost years' for Chinese reform."