THE Chinese Communist Party's leading think tank has called for systematic political liberalisation, including greater media and religious freedom in the next 12 years, as China seeks to become a "modern civil society" by 2020.
The report by scholars at the Central Party School in Beijing, the main academy for training senior officials, warns that China risks social and economic instability if the Communist Party does not set some limits on its own power and acknowledge that the public is fed up with institutionalised corruption and other abuses.
"Citizens' steadily rising democratic consciousness and the grave corruption among party and government officials make it increasingly urgent to press ahead with demands for political system reform," the report says. "The backwardness of the political system is affecting economic development."
The report was finished last year after the 17th party congress, at which the President, Hu Jintao, set out a modest plan of political reforms for the next five years and elevated his successors to the ruling politburo. It has only now been made public.
The principal authors of Storming The Fortress: A Research Report On China's Political System Reform After The 17th Party Congress are Zhou Tianyong, a renowned economics professor, and Wang Changjiang, the director of the school's party-building division.
Arthur Kroeber, director of the Beijing-based research consultancy Dragonomics, said economic growth had enabled China's leaders to maintain social stability in the past 15 years, but this would not be enough to ensure public support in the next decade.
"What appears to be the case is there is a ? widening belief within inner party circles that the only way to keep political stability is to put in place a range of governance reforms, and this is the latest piece of evidence that this position has a significant degree of support from the top."
The 366-page report says the party must keep overall control of the country because "elite" decision-making is crucial to helping China achieve the reforms necessary for lasting economic prosperity. But it calls for steady liberalisation, including allowing candidates for legislatures to actively compete for votes, which is now banned.
The authors say government regulation of news is necessary as China navigates unsettling social changes, but arbitrary and heavy-handed censorship has contributed to mistrust.
The report calls for a law to protect reporters and "effectively halt unconstitutional and unlawful interference in media activities". "Freedom of the press is an inevitable trend," it says.
The authors also urge greater religious freedom, a sensitive topic in a country that is officially atheist but recognises five state-controlled faiths: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.
The party is wary of the potential of religious groups to undermine its authority, but the report says: "Political faith and religious faith are not in contradiction."
Mr Hu has approved limited reforms that have led to some party positions being contested for the first time, and has urged the party to pay more heed to public concerns about corruption, education, medical costs and pollution. Although he has warned that the party must work to ensure its legitimacy, critics say there is little evidence of substantial reform.