Latitude Wen enjoys signals party's evolution
Since the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1989, any discussion of Western-style political reform has been taboo - or at least kept behind closed doors, like the proverbial skeleton in the cupboard.
But the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao can maintain his status despite his recent calls in public for political reform - contrary to the leadership's consensus - underscores the significant changes that have taken place in the Chinese political system since 1989.
Wen's boldness has coincided with a stepped-up crackdown on political dissent and a tightening of the authorities' grip on the media following widespread political upheaval in the Arab world this year.
Yet he appears to be safe from political retribution. Unlike outspoken leaders such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, who were purged for their liberal remarks, Wen has continued to air his frustrations publicly with little impact on his political career, although many believe he can only do so because he will be retiring in early 2013.
Wen ignited the debate with a series of speeches in which he said political reform was a do-or-die issue for the party.
He renewed his campaign in speeches in Malaysia and Indonesia last month and in a chat with young people in Beijing on Tuesday, the eve of China Youth Day.
Some analysts say Wen's remarks echo increasingly louder voices within and outside the ruling party calling for political reform, with many lower officials and academics in government think tanks joining the chorus.
Others say Wen is a dissenting voice within the top leadership, because many other members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee have argued the opposite on countless occasions.
Professor Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University, said the fact that Wen's recent remarks were censored on the mainland suggested he was out of step with other senior leaders.
President Hu Jintao has repeatedly ruled out Western-style democracy on the mainland and has made it clear he does not envision a fundamental overhaul of one-party rule.
Other top leaders - including National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo, No 2 in the party hierarchy; Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman Jia Qinglin, ranked fourth; and Vice-President Xi Jinping, Hu's heir-apparent - have made similar remarks. Wen ranks third on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.
Wen's explicit praise of universal values, while welcomed by the public, has earned him criticism from various sections of the ruling party.
Analysts say the premier's critics fall into three categories.
The first are anti-reform conservatives, who reject anything that threatens socialism and communist rule.
Then there are the extreme nationalists or self-proclaimed patriots who reject anything resembling Western values.
Finally, there are those in the power elite who fear losing their privileges if Wen's words are ever translated into action.
Pro-reform critics, on the other hand, accuse Wen of paying mere lip service to universal values in an effort to improve the leadership's image.
Zhang and other analysts say the fact that Wen can continue to speak out without getting into trouble suggests subtle changes in in the secretive world of Chinese court politics, where dissenting views have never been tolerated, let alone aired publicly.
'Even if Wen is just talking the talk, it represent progress in terms of the party's self-claimed internal democracy,' said Professor Liu Kang, a China-watcher at Duke University in the United States.
He said senior officials had more room to speak nowadays because there was no longer a paramount leader like Deng Xiaoping and consensus was the name of the game in the party's upper echelons.
'There is no absolute authoritive authoritative figure or 'backstage ruler' within the ruling elite like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping,' said Liu, director of Duke's Chinese media and communication studies programme.
Many of the issues raised in 1989 remain alive today, while the communist aristocracy has grown steadily. But the Leninist model perpetuated by the party gave it the power to change on its own terms, if it so chose, said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.
Even if this involved obvious difficulties with entrenched interest groups and power centres, the party had undertaken a considerable overhaul since 1989, Tsang said.
Many analysts agreed with George Washington University sinologist David Shambaugh, who, in his new book, China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, describes a new form of 'eclectic state' that draws on indigenous and foreign practices to adapt to changing times.
With less than two years to go before another power transition without an unquestionable authority, the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring for power at all levels of the party has prompted some analysts to draw a contrast with years past, when paramount party leaders would decide everything and had the power to enforce their will.
Zhang cited flamboyant Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai as evidence of another kind of dissenting view within the leadership, representing extreme leftist conservatives.
Bo has been spearheading a revival of revolutionary culture, harking back to the Cultural Revolution and extolling the party's glorious past under Mao, even though much of that has been criticised and abandoned by the party.
Analysts see Bo's advocacy of all things red as another test for party officials ahead of next year's leadership reshuffle.
'That is a Chinese-style democracy emerging in a society under a one-party system,' Zhang said.
Liu said the fundamental rationale behind such changes was that without political reform, the one-party state and the culture it fostered would defeat the nation's economic aspirations, regardless of the motive behind Wen's remarks.