BEIJING – Calls for reform of China's political system have come repeatedly in the past few months from an unexpected source — the country's premier — and his surprising remarks are stirring consternation and debate in the Communist Party as it prepares for a new generation of leaders.
For a leadership that has tried to present a unified front as it manages a fast-changing society, Premier Wen Jiabao's comments on the need for rule of law and political reforms to undergird economic success seem out of step.
"Without political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring," Wen was quoted as saying in August.
Wen's remarks form the backdrop as the 200-plus leading members of the party gather Friday for a four-day annual policy meeting, although they are not expected to be formally discussed.
"Wen's calls are clearly making some people nervous," said Ding Xueliang, a China expert at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology.
While Central Committee meetings are closed-door affairs, this year's gathering is expected to approve an economic blueprint for 2011-2015 that will promote policies to close the growing gap between rich and poor and encourage consumer spending.
Yet the party is also beginning the delicate process of preparing for the succession of a new generation of leaders in 2012, when Wen and many others on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of power, are expected to step down in keeping with past precedent.
Analysts of Chinese politics say few of the positions have been settled, opening the party to intense lobbying, if not outright infighting.
Wen's comments potentially add to those divisions, inviting party members to take sides and adding pressure on the leadership. Already his calls have inspired liberals and enraged hard-liners, sparking talk of rifts within the party fueled by censorship of some of his comments in state media.
Wen, 68, is China's No. 3 leader. His boss, President and party chief Hu Jintao, has not clearly weighed in on the calls for political reform, focusing his public comments on the need for more balanced economic development and strengthened government institutions.
Speculation about a brewing debate on political reform gained pace when a newspaper published Wen's remembrance of a liberal mentor in April, and since then his remarks have become more pointed. In an interview with CNN this month, Wen suggested that the party, with its unbridled authority, needed to adhere to the constitution and laws.
"The people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible," he said.
Wen's comments were echoed in a remarkable appeal for free speech issued this week by an elite group of retired Communist officials, who cited media censorship of Wen's reform calls as an indictment of the party's overall controls over expression.
Wen's most outspoken comments have either been kept out of or played down by state media — a sign of the limits of the premier's power. In the midst of Wen's calls, the Politburo member with the law and order portfolio called on officials to resist Western political doctrines.
"Some people have come under the influence of erroneous Western political and legal concepts and now and then make expressions that don't conform to Marxist legal theory," Zhou Yongkang, a leading conservative figure, warned in August.
Wen's statements have not been accompanied by any concrete proposals, and analysts see little chance of them sparking any quick changes from an authoritarian party overwhelmingly concerned with maintaining economic growth and quieting social unrest to preserve its own power.
Yet, political watchers say Wen's remarks are exposing differences in how to meet those challenges as well as revealing the premier's own ambitions.
"The differences here are real and significant but not ideological," said Oxford University China expert Steve Tsang. Even if Wen's appeals were to win wide acceptance, the political system would not change significantly in the foreseeable future, Tsang said.
Amid the disagreements, holding the 78 million-member party together is likely to be the overriding concern at a time when China's system is under stress at home and abroad.
Chinese are dissatisfied with rising inflation, high housing prices, employment woes among college graduates, the yawning wealth gap and corruption, while Tibetan and Muslim regions of western China are held in check by a smothering security presence. Abroad, China is facing criticism from the U.S. for its currency and trade practices and its support for North Korea and ties with Iran.
This month's awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo highlighted China's uneasiness with the West, as the award drew praise from Western governments while provoking an angry defensive response from Beijing.
"Right now we're seeing an interesting confluence of circumstances putting China's ruling party under greater pressure, domestic and international, to reassess its political future," said David Bandurski, a China watcher at the University of Hong Kong.
Those pressures will likely affect personnel decisions for the new generation of leaders, compelling the hopefuls to focus on immediate concerns rather than long-term reforms, said Li Datong, a veteran state newspaper journalist who was forced from a top editing job for reporting on sensitive subjects.
President Hu's main concern, analysts say, is ensuring he has a major say in the leadership transition, the better to preserve his influence.
The expected successor to Hu is current Vice President Xi Jinping, though party officials and Chinese political watchers say he is not Hu's pick. Xi may get promoted to the party's Central Military Commission, which oversees military affairs, at the upcoming policy meeting — a sign that the succession is proceeding.
Wen's call for political reform, some say, reflects his desire to leave a political legacy when he retires. On his rise to power, Wen was associated with two liberal reformers of the 1980s, party leaders Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, and Zhao Ziyang, who was purged for refusing to suppress the protests.
"There's no possibility of real change, so calling for political reform is a low-risk way of building Wen's legacy," said Li.