Reporting from Beijing — Soft-spoken, bespectacled and so benign that his nickname is "Grandpa," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has emerged in recent weeks as the lone champion within the top ranks of the Communist Party for political reform.
At a time when the party seems confident of its handling of the burgeoning economy, Wen has developed a habit of speaking out on political reform. "The people's desire and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible," Wen said in an interview aired Oct. 3 on CNN, one of half a dozen similar comments he has uttered since late August.
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A headline on an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a petition for reforms was issued by 100 party committee members. The petition was released by 100 intellectuals.
It's hardly the language of a firebrand, but by the standards of today's Communist Party, Wen's words have nevertheless inspired faint hope among reform-minded Chinese.
As a four-day meeting of the party's 300-plus Central Committee members opened Friday, more than 100 intellectuals released a petition calling for the body to follow through on Wen's promises of reform. "We call upon the Chinese authorities to make good on their oft-repeated promise to reform the political system," said the letter, which is being circulated online.
Earlier in the week, a group of 23 retired party heavyweights issued a similar call, voicing their support for Wen in a toughly worded open letter calling on the Chinese government to abolish censorship.
"By speaking out with such a strong voice about political reform, Premier Wen has gotten us all very excited," said Xiao Mo, a retired expert on cultural relics who was among the signers of the earlier letter, also addressed to the Central Committee. He believes the letter has helped to move political reform higher on the agenda of this weekend's meeting, which was originally expected to focus on the next five-year plan for the economy.
Not everyone thinks the 68-year-old premier is sincere; critics say he is merely a shill for the party, playing "good cop" as a foil to President Hu Jintao, a more imposing and authoritarian figure. A controversial new book published this summer in Hong Kong even derided him with its title, " China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao."
"Wen is just playing a role that the Politburo wants him to play. He is like anesthesia for the Chinese public," said Yu Jie, the book's author, who is now under house arrest in Beijing along with many others who are friends of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned writer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 8.
Yu said he was not optimistic about political reforms in China in the near future. "As long as Liu Xiaobo remains in jail, all of Wen's words are useless."
Wen is perhaps the most beloved figure in the Chinese leadership, projecting an image of a kinder, gentler Communist Party. A geologist by training, he is quick to shed tears on camera, whether he is shaking hands with AIDS patients or comforting earthquake victims.
Curiosity about his political sympathies was piqued by an important cameo role he played during the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. At the time a party functionary, Wen was assigned to accompany Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where Zhao gave a tearful address through a bullhorn in an attempt to open a dialogue. Whether Wen actually agreed with Zhao (who was sacked shortly afterward by then-Premier Li Peng, a hard-liner) or helped in his undoing has long been a matter of debate.
As premier, Wen has often spoken about the need for political reforms, albeit with wishy-washy language making it clear he does not support Western-style democracy for China. But his comments have been somewhat crisper of late.
During a speech in Shenzhen on Aug. 21, he said, "Without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost." In the CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, he also said, "I believe freedom of speech is indispensible."
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post counted seven separate occasions over the course of 43 days on which Wen spoke of political reform.
It is unclear to what extent Wen has support within the Communist Party. Most of what he has said about political reform has not been reported in the state media.
And in a Chinese context, "political reform" often means nothing more than reform within the existing structure of the one-party state: rooting out corruption at the lower levels of the party and making the party's inner workings more transparent.