Declaring reform “an eternal theme of history,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Monday that his country needed to pursue “political restructuring” alongside economic growth to combat rising inequality and rampant corruption.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference at the close of the annual session of China’s nominal legislature, Wen dismissed the idea that China’s authoritarian system made it susceptible to the kinds of popular unrest now roiling the Middle East and North Africa.

“We have followed the situation in [the Middle East] and North Africa,” Wen said. “It is not right to draw an analogy between China and those countries.” He said after 30 years of pursuing 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 three decades of spectacular economic growth had left China a country of “weak economic foundations and uneven development.” He said too many Chinese lack equal access to a good education and health care, and many had not seen the benefits of China’s dynamic growth.

The solution, he said, was political reform — but reform that was gradual and 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 meant Chinese might eventually be allowed to vote in multiparty elections, Wen said the country already had direct elections at the village level, indirect elections at the municipal level, and multiple candidates competing for Communist Party Central Committee positions — although those candidates are of course always vetted by the Communist 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 said.

Wen’s remarks Monday once again seemed to place him at odds with others considered hard-liners in the Communist Party, who have rejected outright any moves toward Western-style democracy, including multiparty elections.

Just last week, Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People’s Congress, as the country’s rubber stamp legislature is known, told the 3,000 assembled delegates that China would fall into an “the 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 and even privatization of state-owned enterprises. He warned 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.