Towards a true party of the people
China is a country of contradictions. It is a communist country where raw capitalism holds sway. It is a one-party state where the central government has little ability to control events in the provinces. And it is cracking down on dissent while at the same time making plans for greater accountability and more democracy.
Last week, for example, Beijing announced a fresh crackdown on the internet, with Xinhua, the official news agency, announcing: 'The state bans the spreading of any news with content that is against national security and [the] public interest.' It called for blogs and personal webpages to 'be directed towards serving the people and socialism, and insist on correct guidance of public opinion for maintaining national and public interests'.
Ironically, the very next day Xinhua reported a major reform initiated by the Communist Party. From now on, the election of village party secretaries 'will no longer be an internal affair of the Communist Party', as non-members are being allowed to vote.
In the past, party secretaries were elected only by party members. But, Xinhua said that 'normally in one village there were only dozens of party members out of over 10,000 non-party people'. So how was it possible to guarantee that the secretary elected by party members could 'reflect the common will of all villagers'?
The answer? Let all villagers vote in the party elections, as well. Already, Xinhua reported, 5,384 village party committees have introduced elections open to non-members.
One official with the Organisation Department of the Shandong provincial party committee said that, in his province, a fifth of the village party secretaries were changed after non-members were allowed to take part in the elections.
Clearly, the party now acknowledges that it cannot represent the public's interests - only the public can do so. The reform also implies that the party needs to represent the interests of the entire citizenry. Carried to its logical conclusion, the Communist Party should be transformed into a party of the whole people.
During the time of Mao Zedong , the party represented workers, peasants and soldiers. Jiang Zemin wanted it to represent advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people. For the party to represent those people, it would be natural to give the vote to that overwhelming majority, regardless of membership.
At a press conference last month with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Premier Wen Jiabao shocked his audience when a reporter asked him how soon the Chinese people would get the freedom to choose their own leaders.
Mr Wen noted that mainlanders already have direct elections at the village level, then added: 'Since the Chinese people can well manage a village at the current stage, I believe in several years they can manage a township, so that will be an evolving system.'
That was the first time a Chinese leader has said direct elections would be introduced at the township level 'in several years'. Village elections have been held throughout China since the 1980s, but no national leader has been willing to say when elections to a higher administrative level will be held - until now.
Mr Wen said that the system of direct voting 'will be realised step by step'. That is to say, direct elections will be introduced gradually at higher and higher levels, including at the provincial and, ultimately, the national level.
The rate of such political reforms is likely to be extremely slow. Still, at least things are moving in the right direction.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator