HONG KONG - There he goes again: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, despite the deafening silence his words inspire among his fellow leaders, refuses to stop talking about political reform, and the changes he so energetically advocates sound suspiciously like Western-style democracy.
The 68-year-old Wen's one-man show for greater people power will soon be coming to and end, as his term expires next March. Despite all the populist rhetoric, he will have achieved precisely nothing on this front.
Wen has been primarily responsible for directing China's economic policy and the results during his eight years in office have been stunningly successful. Lately, though, perhaps thinking that he could use his economic record as a springboard, he has taken up the mantle of political reform. China should not be
allowed to limp into the future on "one leg" (its economic success), the premier has grown fond of saying, but should also open up politically.
Every time Wen speaks in this vein, his words are widely reported (not to mention admired) in the Western media - and totally ignored at home. Indeed, jaded analysts of Chinese politics might conclude that this is exactly the outcome Chinese leaders, including Wen, may desire: The popular premier is allowed to throw the sop of political reform to critics in the West, winning smiles and encouragement from presidents and prime ministers; meanwhile, the Chinese government has launched the biggest crackdown on dissent in recent history, arresting hundreds of artists, religious leaders and humans-rights advocates without even a hint of legal due process.
Not surprisingly, Wen's latest remarks on political reform occurred on foreign ground - during a trip to Malaysia last week whose stated purpose was to enhance economic ties between the two countries. Speaking to Chinese embassy staff and prominent members of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur, the premier suggested that Beijing's current crackdown is counterproductive.
"The most important thing for [China's] future development is to promote independent thinking and creativity," the premier said. "Our country will be invincible if all of our 1.3 billion people can think independently and be creative."
Those bold words could very well have come from the mouth of avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei - if, that is, Ai had not been silenced by his detention more than a month ago for striking similar themes in his work and in statements he posted online, although the official charge against him is "economic crimes".
To his comments in the Malaysian capital, Wen added that China "must advance political, economic and judicial reforms so that our superstructure will keep abreast with the development of our economic foundation".
Yet again, he was clearly linking economic and political reform in a way Western observers have been urging for decades. And, although his remarks were not reported in the mainland media, this time he was not entirely a lone voice in the Chinese wilderness. In fact, he received a boost from a most unlikely source - an editorial in People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
The editorial begins with a quotation commonly attributed (albeit incorrectly) to 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Following that peculiar gambit for the party oracle, the article goes on to disapprove of the broadening campaign to quash dissent in China, saying of party officials: "In their treatment of criticisms and suggestions, some have not only not listened to them with an open mind, but have also resorted to the charge of libel and even used their power to suppress such dissenting voices."
How strange. This is the same newspaper that routinely and unflinchingly defends one-party rule, denounces Western-style democracy and ignores every statement Wen deigns to make about reforming China's authoritarian political system.
What's going on? While there are those who like to fantasize that the party is starting to come apart at the seams on the subject of political reform, it is more likely that confident conservative leaders are occasionally allowing a weak, liberal-minded minority to give voice to their opinions. This not only appeases that feeble minority but also gives some pause to Western critics of China's reputedly iron-fisted one-party rule.
Despite what Wen or one odd editorial in People's Daily may say, however, the winds of political change are not blowing in China. President Hu Jintao lets his premier speak about changing China's political structure but never offers any words of support. And the de facto second-most-powerful man in China, National People's Congress (NPC) chairman Wu Bangguo, makes a habit of expressing contempt for Wen's ideas while carefully avoiding any attack on the premier himself.
In a speech at the annual NPC meeting in March, Wu explicitly ruled out Western-style democracy for China, saying: "We have made a solemn declaration that we will not employ a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation."
Wu added that, under such a fatally flawed system, "it is possible that the state could sink into the abyss of internal disorder."
No objections to Wu's speech were raised at the congress - from Hu, from the otherwise outspoken Wen or from any of the delegates. And thus political reform was wiped off the NPC agenda for yet another year as maintaining economic growth, once again, seized center stage.
Wen appeared to make the decision to present himself as spokesman for political reform last August in a speech he delivered in Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong that was then celebrating its 30th anniversary as China's first laboratory of capitalism - or Special Economic Zone.
"Without the protection of political reform," the premier said at the time, "the achievements we have made through economic reform may be lost and, hence, the goal of modernization may be beyond realization".
A month later, in New York, Wen returned to the topic in remarks he made to overseas Chinese media, stating: "The main purpose of political reform is to safeguard the freedoms and rights provided under the constitution and law."
Less than two weeks later, Wen appeared on CNN to trumpet his pet theme. In an interview with the network's Fareed Zakaria, the first granted by the premier to a foreign journalist in two years, Wen declared: "The people's wishes for, and needs for, democracy and freedom are irresistible."
He then pledged: "In spite of some resistance, I will act in accordance with these ideals unswervingly and advance, within the realm of my capabilities, political restructuring ... I will not fall in spite of a strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield till the last day of my life."
Many analysts interpreted Wen's dramatic statements as an attempt to place political reform front and center at the NPC congress in March. But Hu, Wu and others made sure that didn't happen.
As the jockeying for power intensifies ahead of next year's pivotal congress, which will usher in a new generation of leaders, liberal voices like Wen's will most likely be drowned out by the rhetoric of party loyalty and the party's overriding goals of securing China's economic position in the world and maintaining social stability and home.
In other words, it will be a lot like this year's congress, and the one before that, and the one before that.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com