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Beijing's democratic vision falls short

Wen Jiabao, beginning his 10th and final year as China's premier, again called for political reform and warned that failure to make progress may bring about a tragedy, such as the eruption of another Cultural Revolution, which tore the country apart for a decade.

But the premier, speaking at the annual press conference at the end of the meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, emphasized the need for gradual change, without indicating when, if ever, Chinese would be able to choose their own national leaders.

Asked about the prospect of direct elections in China, Wen, speaking slowly and deliberately, declared: “If people are able to run the affairs of a village well, eventually they'll be able to run a township, and a county.”

“I believe China's democratic system will, in accordance with China's national conditions, develop in a step-by-step way. No force can stop this,” the premier said.

The words were spoken with evident sincerity. Unfortunately, they have all been heard before.

Eight years ago, at a similar press conference, he had asserted with great earnestness: “We should promote primary-level democracy by ways of self-governance among villagers, direct elections at the village level and greater transparency in government affairs at the county and township levels.”

Village elections began after a trial implementation in 1987 and, since 1998, villages across the country have been mandated by law to hold elections every three years. But, after almost 25 years of experimentation, the Chinese authorities have not moved them to the township and county level yet — not so mention direct elections at the national level.

At the NPC meeting, it was disclosed that beginning next year there will be a reduction in the proportion of Communist Party and government officials among the roughly 3,000 deputies, with more seats allocated to workers and farmers.

This was hailed as “major democratic progress” even though all the deputies will continue to be screened by the party.

It is telling that when Premier Wen was asked about the progress of democratization, he did not even cite this step.

More than three decades ago, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to make economic development the country's top priority. However, he also made democracy a goal, albeit a more remote one.

Deng had a three-stage development plan for China. The first step was to double GDP from 1981 to 1990. The second was to double it again in the following decade. Both those goals were achieved ahead of schedule.

The third and final step, which China's leaders are engaged in now, was to achieve modernization by the middle of the 21st century so that Chinese people will enjoy a lifestyle similar to that of people in medium-sized developed countries.

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