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Asia

China’s leaders meet amid reform calls

The Central Committee of China’s Communist Party has begun its annual plenary session in Beijing. Prior to the meeting, open letters calling for political reforms have caused quite a stir.

The Central Committee is meeting behind closed doors

The Central Committee is meeting behind closed doors

The results of the plenum of more than 300 members of the Central Committee will only be announced after it ends on Monday. According to China’s state news agency Xinhua, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are among those attending.

Rumors have spread that the demand for political reforms will be on the agenda after two open letters to China’s leadership were published.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has two years left in office

Chinese President Hu Jintao has two years left in office

Focus on economic reform

Willy Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong doubts this. He thinks that there will be discussions about consumer spending, particularly raising the living standards of workers and peasants. "At this stage they are more interested in economic reform rather than political reform," he explains.

But the reform debate has recently intensified after jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. On Friday, an open letter signed by over 200 intellectuals was published online. Initiated by Xu Youyu from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading Beijing think tank, the letter calls for more democracy and the release of Liu Xiaobo.

Wen Jiabao has spoken in favor of political reforms

Wen Jiabao has spoken in favor of political reforms

'Irresistible' call for democracy and freedom

It also demands democratic reform within the Communist Party. In an interview broadcast by CNN television earlier this month, even Premier Wen Jiabao called press freedom "indispensable", adding that "the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible." Wen’s statement was later censored by Chinese officials for domestic consumption and never made it to the Chinese media.

Wen - who is viewed by some as more liberal-minded - is only in charge of economic issues, not political issues. But he also lacks support within his own party. "We don’t think that his remarks will trigger a process of fundamental reforms. He only expresses his personal views on China’s future," says Xu Youyu.

Power transition

Another reason why there won’t be any reforms is that China’s leadership has entered a phase of transition. The Central Committee’s meeting is expected to mark the beginning of a power shift from President Hu Jintao to his potential successor Xi Jinping.

Current Vice President Xi Jinping is widely seen as China's next top leader

Current Vice President Xi Jinping is widely seen as China's next top leader

The Chinese regime is coming closer to the end of the current administration under Hu Jintao. There will be a changing of the guards in October 2012. "There are only two years left for the current administration for this massive change of personnel at the top. So at this stage the priority is basically on ensuring political stability, not on political change," says Lam.

Dominated by conservatives

Willy Lam adds that for the reform process to pick up speed, the voices for reform in China and within the Communist Party in particular would have to grow louder. As long as the Central Committee as well as the Politburo are dominated by conservatives, he adds, "the open letters, which are very courageous, will not have any tangible impact on the development of Chinese politics."

Earlier this week, party veterans and retired journalists issued another open letter to the leadership, arguing that if the Communist Party does not reform itself, it will lose its vitality and die a natural death.

Author: Chi Viet Giang

Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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