By Keith B. Richburg
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; A06
BEIJING - Declaring reform "an eternal theme of history," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Monday that his country needs to pursue "political restructuring" alongside economic growth to combat rising inequality and rampant corruption.
Speaking to reporters at a news conference at the close of the annual session of China's nominal legislature, Wen dismissed the idea that the country's authoritarian system makes it susceptible to the kinds of popular unrest now roiling the Middle East and North Africa.
"We have followed the situation" there, Wen said. "It is not right to draw an analogy between China and those countries." He said that after 30 years of China's pursuit of market-based economic policies, "the lives of Chinese people have been markedly improved."
But Wen, who has often been a lonely voice within the ruling Communist Party hierarchy advocating more openness, acknowledged that China has "weak economic foundations and uneven development." He said that too many Chinese lack equal access to quality education and health care and that many have not benefited from China's dynamic growth in the past three decades.
The solution, he said, is political reform - but reform that is gradual and is led by the Communist Party.
"It's by no means easy to pursue political restructuring in a country with 1.3 billion people," Wen said. "It needs to take place in an orderly way, under the leadership of the party.
"Political restructuring and economic reform should be advanced in a coordinated way," Wen said. "Political restructuring offers a guarantee for our economic restructuring endeavors. Without political restructuring, the economic restructuring will not succeed, and the achievements we made in economic restructuring may be lost."
Asked specifically whether his view of political reform means that the Chinese people might eventually be allowed to vote in multiparty elections, Wen said the country already has direct elections at the village level, indirect elections at the municipal level and multiple candidates competing for Communist Party Central Committee positions - although the candidates are vetted by the party.
"We must pursue a step-by-step approach in this process," Wen said. "We also should believe when the people have shown they are capable of running a village, they will also be capable of moving from running village affairs to running the affairs of a township and a county. And that will be a gradual process. It needs to proceed in an orderly way and under the leadership of the party."
Wen's remarks Monday once again seemed to place him at odds with those considered hard-liners in the Communist Party, who have rejected outright any moves toward Western-style democracy, including multiparty elections.
Last week, Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People's Congress, as the legislature is known, told the 3,000 assembled delegates that China would fall into an "abyss of internal disorder" if it tried to "blindly follow or imitate others" in the political field.
"On the basis of China's condition, we've made a solemn declaration that we'll not employ a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation," Wu said in a tough speech that dismissed any talk of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, federalism or privatization of state-owned enterprises. He warned that China must never "waver" from its socialist system, which he called "the correct political orientation."
Wu's hard-line remarks won praise in newspaper editorials.