Tuesday 10 December 2019

Wen Jiabao promises political reform for China

Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao addresses the Greek parliament in Athens. Photo: Getty Images
Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao addresses the Greek parliament in Athens. Photo: Getty Images

Malcolm Moore

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, has promised that China will carry out political reform and acknowledged that the need for democracy and freedom in China is "irresistible".

In a rare interview, aired on CNN on Sunday, Mr Wen said: "I believe I and all the Chinese people have such conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people's wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China."

He added: "In spite of some resistance I will advance within the realm of my capabilities political restructuring."

Asked about censorship, the 68-year-old Mr Wen added: "I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and in a country that has become strong." He insisted that there was freedom to criticise the Chinese government on the internet, where he said he had often seen views aired that were sharply critical of officials.

The Communist Party has ruled without opposition in China since 1949, imprisoning scores of political activists and dissidents. While China made vital economic reforms in the late 1970s to allow a more market-based economy, the Party has not yet made accompanying political reforms.

Mr Wen added the caveat that any reforms now "must be conducted within the range allowed by the constitution and the laws. So that the country will have a normal order."

The interview marks the third time in recent weeks that Mr Wen has raised the topic of political reform.

At the beginning of September, Mr Wen said on a visit to Shenzhen that "Without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost and the goal of modernisation would not materialise". He also called for a loosening of the "excessive political control" of the Communist party.

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Mr Wen said that "While deepening economic restructuring, we will also push forward political restructuring." In the past, the Communist party has repeatedly promised political reforms but has failed to deliver any substantive changes. The party also often uses the phrase "democracy" simply to refer to greater public participation in decision-making, without universal suffrage.

Notions in the run up to the 17th National Party Congress in October 2007 that there might be reforms were dashed when the government chose to focus on stability and security in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic games and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong.

However, Mr Wen's decision to once again air the topic, and to a major international television network, may confirm that reform is back on the government agenda.

Some observers have commented that there may be a split between Mr Wen and Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, over the issue. Mr Hu has not recently mentioned any prospect of political reform.

"[Mr Wen] admitted there is inner party disagreement over political reform," said Victor Shih, a professor of Chinese politics at Northwestern University.

Nevertheless, by airing the idea of political reform in public, Mr Wen has opened up space for a debate in the Chinese media. Hu Shuli, the pioneering editor of Century Weekly, a Chinese magazine, recently argued that China "cannot wait" any longer for reforms to its political system. "The sense of personal independence is growing among our citizens, as is consciousness of their rights and the appetite for participation in current affairs," she said.


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