BEIJING, Feb. 27 -- The Communist Party cautioned China's increasingly impatient reformers and intellectuals Tuesday that political liberalization and democracy are still a long way off despite the rapid pace of economic change over the past two decades.
The warning, in an article attributed to Premier Wen Jiabao in the official People's Daily newspaper, constituted the party's first known response to a bubbling up of political debate as China prepares for an annual session of its legislature and an important Communist Party congress that is scheduled for this fall.
Most of the debate has remained behind closed doors, in keeping with the party's tradition of secrecy. But two recent articles by prominent establishment figures brought into the open suggestions to President Hu Jintao's government that moving faster on political reforms would help smooth the transformation to a market economy.
One, by Zhou Ruijun, a former People's Daily editor known for reformist views, said greater democratic openness is necessary to defuse tensions over a growing gap between rich and poor, which he warned could lead to instability. Another, by former Renmin University vice president Xie Tao, suggested that China should move speedily toward a Scandinavian-like social-welfare democracy.
Wen, who recently was reported to be in charge of preparing a leadership platform for the party congress, reached into familiar Marxist vocabulary to build an argument that China is not yet ready for such a democracy, even though it remains a distant goal for the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" that the party hopes to build.
"We are still far away from advancing out of the primary stages of socialism," he said. "We must stick with the basic development guideline of that stage for 100 years."
At the same time, Wen said that "the socialist system is not contradictory to democracy," adding: "A highly developed democracy and a complete legal system are inherent requirements of the socialist system and an important benchmark of a mature socialist system."
Wen's comments were seen as a foretaste of the platform Hu and his lieutenants will put forth at the key 17th party congress, essentially calling for the continuation of rapid economic development but without bold political departures. The remarks were also in keeping with Hu's reputation as a cautious, bet-hedging leader.
The congress is held every five years, and analysts have described this fall's assembly as a pivotal moment for Hu. Five years after taking power, he is expected to cement his leadership by making sure officials loyal to him are placed in key positions on the Politburo and its decision-making Standing Committee. That implies the retirement of some current party officials identified with the former president and party leader, Jiang Zemin, they noted, and so Hu is eager to avoid ideological disputes that could complicate the personnel changes.
Liu Xiaobo, a writer and political dissident, suggested Hu and Wen were working toward a trouble-free party congress by trying to walk a line between conservatives and liberals, who for different reasons are uncomfortable with China's political system. While conservative party stalwarts have become upset at the growing distance from Mao Zedong's founding ideology, eager reformers have become frustrated that the liberalization started by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s still focuses mainly on economic reform.
"China has undertaken the opening and reform policy for 20 years, and many outsiders have applauded China's glamorous economic achievement," Liu added, "but those who really understand China know that many deep-rooted problems haven't been touched at all."
In another aspect of the debate, Chinese scholars posted a petition on the Internet recently calling on the legislature to slow down the privatization of state-owned companies and legal protection for their new owners.
Hundreds of large government-owned firms have been closed in recent years because they lost vast sums of money and survived only by ever-more-precarious loans. The closures have resulted in unemployment for hundreds of thousands of workers, the scholars complained, broadening the rich-poor gap and raising the threat of instability.
"With the relentless advance of privatization, our country already has a serious gap between rich and poor, which is polarizing into two extremes," said the petition, which was signed by, among others, Gong Xiantian, a Peking University law professor; Li Chengrui, former head of the National Statistics Bureau; and a dozen academics from the party's own Central Party School.
Similar opposition among party officials led Hu's government to pull back a law protecting private property, including privatized state enterprises, after it was submitted to last year's session of the legislature, the National People's Congress. The government has prepared a new law for this session. But the scholars warned that, practically speaking, the law would sanction the corruption that often accompanies such sell-offs and should be delayed again until new rules are drawn up.
Underlying the opposition is a reluctance among many tradition-minded party members to abandon the long-standing socialist principle that the state owns all land. Their fight against legal protection for private property ownership has become a kind of last stand against the wholesale jettisoning of communist doctrine that has occurred in China since Deng's reforms began.
Without directly addressing the petition, Wen acknowledged that China's market-oriented economic development must also include more social justice, calling these "two interrelated and mutually beneficial tasks." But he also expressed determination to keep at the reforms.
"Without sustained rapid growth of the productive forces, it is impossible to finally secure the fairness and social justice that lie at the heart of the socialist system," he wrote.