'Freeing the mind' must start with leaders - and soon
As mainland leaders constantly exhort everyone to 'free their minds' these days, the irony cannot be lost on many overseas analysts that the leadership seems to be acting to the contrary by cracking down hard on dissent and tightening the muzzle on the media.
The latest case is the jailing of prominent human rights activist Hu Jia in Beijing last week, a verdict that drew international condemnation.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the sloganeering as merely a propaganda ploy.
'Emancipation of the mind' is likely to be the most important theme in an intense political debate that is going to gather strength and spread nationwide following the Olympics in August.
It is expected to reach a climax towards the end of the year when Beijing conducts elaborate ceremonies to mark the 30th anniversary of China's opening up and reforms of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping .
The implications of the great debate can be far-reaching, as they will decide the pace and scale of the mainland's political, economic and social developments.
To understand why the debate is of great importance, some history is in order.
After Deng made his third political comeback in the late 1970s, he and his then top lieutenant, Hu Yaobang , engineered an ingenious political coup against Hua Guofeng , the chosen successor of Mao Zedong , by launching a national debate over 'practice is the sole criterion for testing truth', and calling for the 'emancipation of the mind'.
The debate, which was aimed at toppling Mr Hua's dogmatic approach in pursuing Mao's disastrous policies, paved the way for Deng to take the mainland on the path of opening up and economic reforms.
In 1992, after Deng realised conservatives were trying to roll back his economic reform programmes in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, he made what is now called his 'southern tour' and heralded a great debate over the direction of the reforms and emancipation of the mind.
That debate stiffened the resolve of the pro-reform officials and laid the foundation for the mainland's economic takeoff in the ensuing years.
As the mainland's economy has now become the world's fourth-largest by the value of the gross domestic product, the country is in for another great debate over the future of reforms.
In his annual press conference last month, Premier Wen Jiabao said: 'We have to free the minds of everyone, particularly of leaders, so that everyone can have independent thought, critical thinking and innovation capabilities. Only in this way can we constantly move our cause forward.'
This time, mainland leaders renewed the campaign for the emancipation of the mind after being faced with serious challenges from the conservative forces over the past few years. Those detractors said the reforms had gone too far and were to blame for the widening income gap and environmental degradation.
The debate continued to the Communist Party's 17th congress last year, when leaders finally reached a broad consensus that the current social woes were a result of incomplete reforms. They agreed on the need to push ahead with more drastic upheaval.
But the fact remains that reforms, economic or political, have largely stalled since President Hu Jintao and Mr Wen came to power in late 2002 and early 2003.
There is little doubt China's reform process has reached a critical juncture. For the economy to embark on a path of sustainable and fast development and the mainland to become a truly modern nation, leaders must tackle the most difficult parts of the reforms - political reforms, government restructuring, land ownership reforms and breaking up the state monopolies of key industries such as banking and energy.
So far, there is little indication that leaders are willing to tackle those issues head-on, despite the talk. Hopefully, they will free their minds first - and soon.