BEIJING (Reuters) - As China readies for the Olympics and an anniversary of landmark reforms, officials and intellectuals have intensified calls for democratic change they say is needed to fight corruption and misrule.
The demands for loosening the Communist Party’s grip have appeared in books, press commentaries and even official meetings ahead of the annual session of the Party-controlled parliament, which opens on Wednesday.
Forums discussing democratic reform, media freedom and other sensitive demands have attracted many dozens of citizens in Beijing and hundreds in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province.
“The discussion is certainly becoming livelier, but we have to see if this is going to be followed by substantial action,” said Du Guang, a 79-year-old researcher at the Central Party School, an elite think-tank, who recently spoke at one such meeting in a crowded Beijing teahouse.
“That will depend not just on the central leadership’s attitude but also on how strong the calls are from society.”
China’s leaders have shown no appetite for radical change that would challenge one-party rule, and with Beijing preparing for its showcase Olympic Games in August, they will be especially wary of unrest, likely locking away or isolating many dissidents.
But the Party Central Committee said after a meeting last week that some political reform was needed to cure misgovernance and social strains. And the national parliament is set to unify dozens of government ministries into several “super-ministries” and to promise parliament delegates a stronger say in policy.
Democracy advocates said they hope the international spotlight on the Games, and then the December anniversary of the 1978 meeting celebrated as launching Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, will open room for even bolder demands.
“These voices (for political change) have never entirely stopped, but since early this year they have grown markedly stronger. They’ve been waiting for an opening,” said Liu Suli, owner of the All Sages bookstore in Beijing.
On Sunday, the cafe in his store hosted a forum on freedom of the press crowded with dozens of students and journalists, many criticising censorship.
“Before August, the government won’t go out of its way to suppress debate, and that’s encouraging freer discussion for now. I can’t say how long it will last,” Liu said.
Guangdong province in the far south, whose residents have a reputation for being more interested in business than ideology, has become a wellspring of this reformist current.
After the ambitious Wang Yang, who turns 53 this month, was promoted to party boss there late last year, he launched a campaign urging “emancipation of thought”, a slogan coined by Deng and other reformers in the late 1970s to attack the harsh orthodoxies of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Guangdong newspapers have since issued a torrent of calls for “emancipation”, which some observers see as chiefly public relations to brand Wang as an enlightened leader.
But the campaign has also provided an opening for liberal intellectuals and officials urging substantial political reforms.
“‘Emancipation of thought’ is a slogan that had an enormous impact on the early years of reform,” said Ding Xueliang, a Beijing-based researcher for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who visited Guangdong in January.
“Now it is a slogan that anyone can inject anything into, including discussion of political system reform.”
Guangdong newspapers have sponsored lively public talks by intellectuals long out of favour with Beijing censors — with the nod of the province propaganda office, according to one Beijing intellectual involved who asked to remain anonymous.
Ding said that in Guangzhou he addressed hundreds of eager residents packed into a hall.
“I said Guangzhou should become a city that focuses on trials in political reform. They seemed really enthusiastic about the idea,” he said of the audience.
There are some signs that this reform debate could expand ahead of the 30th anniversary of the 1978 meeting.
President Hu Jintao has promised major celebrations for the anniversary, and some establishment intellectuals have said the time should be marked with a burst of fresh reforms.
“The best commemoration for reform and opening up would be achieving a new breakthrough in reform and opening up,” Li Junru, a deputy president of the Central Party School, told the China News Service last week.
Li wrote a preface for a new report by Party School researchers that gives a blueprint for gradual political reform, keeping Party control while giving citizens greater rights.
Yu Keping, a prominent Beijing scholar who advises the government on reform, has also issued a new book urging “emancipation of thinking and political progress”.
“In China, ideological change is often the forerunner of political reform,” Yu writes in his follow-up to his 2007 best-seller, “Democracy is a Good Thing”.
But supporters of democratic change said that while the Party may tolerate more open discussion for now, top leaders appeared far from ready to embrace major change.
“Fresh emancipation of thought and calls from society could together help push the central leadership in the direction of political reform,” said Du, the party scholar. “But nobody should expect rapid change. They don’t think that way.”
Editing by Brian Rhoads and John Chalmers