THE National People's Congress (NPC) chairman, Qiao Shi , has lent his prestige to high-level research and experiments in political reform, particularly modernising the leadership structure.
Political sources in Beijing said Mr Qiao had thrown his weight behind liberalisation ahead of the sixth plenum of the Party Central Committee scheduled for late this month.
While the plenum is expected to pass a resolution on building 'socialist spiritual civilisation', controversy still surrounds the definition of the term. The sources said that in internal party meetings, Mr Qiao had insisted that spiritual civilisation meant the modernisation of the political structure.
President Jiang Zemin - in charge of the drafting team - has upheld conservative norms such as 'talking more about politics' and cleaving to the Marxist-Leninist canon.
The sources said the NPC chief had also raised ideals associated with Deng Xiaoping such as separation of party and government.
Western diplomats said a number of intellectuals in Beijing were heartened by remarks made by Mr Qiao to a German newspaper last week.
The intellectuals were particularly struck by a Deng remark quoted by Mr Qiao, that 'democracy must be rendered systematic and legalised' so that it will not be adulterated just because of a change in the outlook of a certain leader.
The diplomats said Mr Qiao had appealed to Mr Deng's authority to emphasise the need to use systems and the law to rein in Mr Jiang's ambition.
A source close to the Chinese legislature said several liberal think tanks were helping Mr Qiao to define new ideas for political reform.
They included a new research office, as well as established units such as the Central Party School, which Mr Qiao once headed.
Peng Zhen, 93, a former chairman of the NPC and head of the Beijing municipal government, made a surprise appearance in the capital last month to inspect a new infrastructure project.
In the past year, both Mr Peng, who last year recovered from cancer, and another former NPC chief, Wan Li, had given political support to Mr Qiao.