REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unexpectedly direct call for political reform on Wednesday, saying that without changes the nation's economy could stall and the mistakes of Mao Tse-tung's disastrous Cultural Revolution could be repeated.
Although Wen's words were similar to those in interviews he has given the last two years, that they were uttered at the Great Hall of the People during the annual news conference at the close of the National People's Congress amplified their importance.
"China has come to a critical stage," Wen said. "Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structure reform. And the gains we have made in this area may be lost. New problems that have cropped up in China's society will not be fundamentally resolved. And such historical tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen again."
The Cultural Revolution was Mao's violent purge of the intellectual elite. It lasted from 1966 to 1976 and is still a sensitive topic in China, seldom mentioned by the nation's leaders, much less in such a public forum.
Wen, 69, who is set to retire early next year along with President Hu Jintao, is hardly a rabble-rouser; during the news conference, he spoke slowly and deliberately without discernible passion or anger. But he touched on a number of delicate issues: corruption, lack of transparency, income inequality, elections.
"I believe that the democratic system of China will continue to move forward in keeping with China's national conditions. And no force will be able to hold this process back," he said.
"This was very bold speech in the Chinese political context," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Beijng's Renmin University. "He had a very clear message."
Political analysts were also struck by an offer from Wen to meet with government critics in Zhongnangai, the Communist Party headquarters -- a surprising comment from an official whose government routinely arrests critics for subversion.
"I don't feel surprised at all that there have been some critical comments on the Internet about the performance of the government, and I think it is only natural for that to happen," Wen said. “I have often thought about inviting some representatives of people who on a regular basis make critical comments about the work of government so that we can have face-to-face discussions on issues they are interested in."
"This is something I have not heard before," said Li Datong, a prominent retired editor from the Communist Youth Daily, who was one of the signatories of Charter 08, an online manifesto released in 2008 calling for democracy. One of the prime authors, Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, is serving an 11-year prison term largely as a result of the charter.
Li's assessment was that Wen is sincere but powerless.
"He is the only one of the nine-member standing committee of the Poliburo who talks about political and structural reform," Li said. "This time because it was the last press conference, I think he wanted to put it on the record for his legacy that he stood for reform."
In 2010, Wen caused a stir by telling a CNN interviewer that "the people's desire and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible." Many critics believed that he was merely playing "good cop" to Hu, who is a more austere figure. A book published the same year in Hong Kong dismissed Wen with its title, "China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao."
The news conference by the premier at the conclusion of the National People’s Congress is an annual ritual. Last year, he called for "gradual" political reform under the "leadership of the party."
Much of his nearly three-hour news conference was apologetic. "There are many regrets," Wen said, without explaining what those regrets were.
In his warnings about another Cultural Revolution, some political analysts said they thought he was referring obliquely to a leftist revival in the central city of Chongqing, where the city's charismatic Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, has had thousands arrested for corruption and led a campaign to sing Communist Party songs. The top police official from Chongqing, Wang Lijun, was recently arrested after briefly seeking refuge at a nearby U.S. consulate.
Chongqing leaders should “seriously self-reflect and draw lessons from the incident," Wen said.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao waves as he arrives Wednesday for a news conference following the close of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Credit: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images