Chinese leader urges democratic reforms

President seeks changes to improve system, not replace it, analyst says


BEIJING - President Hu Jintao made a vague but insistent call for more democracy in China on the eve of the country's National Day holiday, raising expectations that the new leader might support greater pluralism in the one-party state.

In an address to the ruling Politburo delivered Tuesday and made public by China's official news service yesterday, Hu said the Communist Party must undertake a "sweeping systemic project" to increase public participation in government and enforce the rule of law. He repeatedly emphasized the need for democracy.

"We must enrich the forms of democracy, make democratic procedures complete, expand citizens' orderly political participation, and ensure that the people can exercise democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic administration and democratic scrutiny," Hu said.

Chinese leaders promote the concept of democracy mainly to enhance the credibility of the Communist Party and to fight corruption among low- and middle-ranking officials. Hu almost certainly does not plan to push Western-style democracy.

Even so, Hu's speech was his boldest call for accelerated political change since he became general secretary of the Communist Party in November. He became president in March.

"Hu is focusing on improving the operation of the existing system, not changing the system itself," said Wu Jiaxiang, a former government official who is a leading political analyst in Beijing. "But he is making very clear that he is in favor of political reform."

The speech contained no specifics. But those who follow politics closely in Beijing are expecting Hu to broaden the role of elections within the Communist Party, meaning that multiple candidates may compete for positions and that the party's rank and file may have a say in who gets promoted.

Hu may also consider allowing people to begin choosing township or county leaders, expanding local elections that have been permitted at the village level for many years.

Consideration of such steps could come as early as the middle of this month, when China's top leaders gather for an extended national planning session. The meeting, called a plenum, is expected to focus primarily on economic initiatives and a long-planned amendment to the constitution that would give more protection to private property. But Hu's speech suggests that political change is also on the agenda.

Hu almost certainly does not yet have the standing within the party to undertake radical changes. He must contend with the continuing influence of Jiang Zemin, his predecessor as party chief who continues to control the military.

But leaders have also acknowledged that the country's enormous government and party bureaucracy may collapse if it does not become more effective and less corrupt, and some liberals believe that popular participation is the only way to provide checks and balances.

Talk of political openness also appears to be part of a campaign for popular support by Hu and China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao. They have repeatedly stressed their eagerness to make the government more responsive to the needs of the people.

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