BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday dismissed any comparisons between his nation and Arab regimes wracked by recent political unrest, though he also acknowledged the need to address underlying social problems and cautioned against rapid political change.
“If we are to address the peoples’ grievances and meet their wishes we must create conditions for the people to criticize and supervise the government,” Wen said at a press conference marking the end of the annual session of the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress.
Beyond talking about creating more pressure release valves for ordinary Chinese, Wen seemed to take a more subdued tone than he did during an interview with CNN last year in which he said “the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible.”
As was also the case during his March 5 speech at the opening of this year’s congress, Wen mostly sidestepped the question of democracy, instead emphasizing social stability programs such as those that target inflation, raise wages and provide subsidized housing.
“The tone and wording of his remarks on political reform during the NPC were very different from his CNN interview,” noted Victor Shih, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in Chinese politics.
The difficulty of knowing whether Wen’s words signaled an actual shift in his approach – or, indeed, if he was truly advocating reform to begin with last year -- points to the deeply-opaque nature of a Chinese government that reveals almost nothing of its internal deliberations.
Many China observers say that when officials in Beijing speak about reform, they are actually referring to adjusting the structure of the Communist party to make it more efficient, and not the prospect of changing the one-party governing system itself.
While almost 3,000 People’s Congress delegates filed into the Great Hall of the People this month to much pomp and talk about governance, the nation is in fact ruled at its center by a nine-man politburo standing committee. The dynamics of that group, of which Wen is a member, are subject to much conjecture and very little public knowledge.
For instance, a second standing committee member, Wu Bangguo, drew a more conservative political line in his address to the congress last week, saying that China will never adopt a multi-party political system, and that the aim of all laws should be to “consolidate and improve the party’s ruling status.”
Did the two men’s words represent a split within the halls of power, or just different points on the same spectrum? There are guesses in both directions.
Complicating matters further, the combination of the Arab unrest and online calls from abroad for protests in China during the past month have prompted the government to take an even more aggressive approach than usual to ensuring domestic “harmony,” such as detaining dozens of activists.
It was impossible to know, however, if there was any relationship between those events and Wen focusing more on the “gradual” part of the “gradual process” he described.
The popular 68-year-old prime minister, famously known as “Grandpa Wen,” emphasized on Monday that while political change is necessary, it must come slowly and be shepherded by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.
“It is by no means easy to pursue political reform in such a big country with 1.3 billion people,” Wen said. “It requires a stable and harmonious social environment, and it needs to be taken forward in an orderly way under the leadership of the party.”
Although Wen said that without political reform the country would risk losing its tremendous economic gains of the past 30 years, a point he’s made previously, his description of the way forward did not suggest fast gains.
Referring to elections in which small villages can choose their local leaders, who are far less powerful than Communist Party bosses, Wen said he thought it was a good start. After showing they can run things at a village level, he said, Chinese people can then progress to townships and counties.
“I believe we must pursue a step by step approach in this process,” Wen said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tom on Twitter
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog