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On Eve of China Congress, Calls for Reform Unanswered

  • Shannon Van Sant

China's Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping speaks to Vice Premier Li Keqiang, presidium of the first session of the 12th National People's Congress, Beijing, March 4, 2013.

China's Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping speaks to Vice Premier Li Keqiang, presidium of the first session of the 12th National People's Congress, Beijing, March 4, 2013.

This week, China opens its annual National People’s Congress to mark the end of the leadership transition.

While some of China's leaders have hinted at the need for political reform, in January, many of the country's leading academics openly called for democratic change.

A day before the Congress opens, however, there are few signs of substantive reforms. When asked about the potential for change under President Xi Jinping, a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress instead spoke of the success of China’s model for development, echoing commentary by Fu Ying, the country's vice foreign minister.

"It is inaccurate and unfair to say that China's style of political reform is not political reform whenever it does not follow in the footsteps of other countries," said Fu, explaining that, in her visits to developed countries with problems more complex than China's, officials are largely spared public calls for reform.

"In fact, the problems they are facing are more difficult in some cases, and yet no one is asking them to change their political system," she said.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao broached the topic of political reform at last year’s Congress meeting, when he warned that, without meaningful political reform, tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution could recur.

In January, 100 of China’s leading scholars, journalists and activists signed a petition calling for the country’s constitution to be implemented, which they say would mean an independent judiciary and lifting controls on the Internet, independent organizations and the news media.

Just one month earlier, incoming President Xi Jinping hinted that the party may lose power if it fails to enact political changes. His December trip to Shenzhen, one of the first Chinese cities to embrace capitalism, was perceived by many as an indication of his desire for greater economic liberalization.

Documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming says expectations are high for change under China’s new leadership.

"There is a very intense call for change in China," Ai said. "People tend to have great hopes when new leaders assume power, no matter who the leader is, and there is hope the new leaders will break away from the burdens of their predecessors."

Signs of change may come during the next 10 days, when advocates of reform could be appointed to some of China’s top leadership posts. However, skeptics say China’s rapid economic development has created entrenched interest groups, tied to China’s state-owned enterprises, which will aim to block meaningful reform.

"Chinese cannot have faith for change to come from their political leaders, who live outside the problems many suffer in the country," said Ai. "These leaders drink water especially provided for them; their families do not even live in China anymore, and when these leaders assemble they leave all problems and criticisms at the door."

Many point to the success of China’s market-based economic reforms in years past as partly responsible for the growing calls for political change. With unrest about land seizures and environmental problems in many parts of the country, protesters say political change is needed to address the inequalities created by rapid economic development.

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