The movement to push for wider political reforms at next year's 16th Party Congress is being reflected in small but symbolic moves at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Cass). The academy has activated a centre to study democracy, and last month issued its first book on the topic called On the Theory of Democracy, which carries a forward by Cass president, liberal Politburo member Li Tieying. Although it is a collection of generally dull essays by experts, analysts suggest the fact that it was published at all is significant. The book was commissioned by President Jiang Zemin as far back as 1998, when enthusiasm for political reforms was still strong, but was never released. Publication was then rescheduled for August this year. It finally appeared in October and has been given little publicity. The book coincides with activation of the dormant Research Centre for the Problems of Democracy, set up last year. Despite its name, it still has no permanent staff but brings together scholars from Cass' law and political science departments. Some see the group as a step towards setting up China's first think-tank to examine democratic notions. China has been playing host to various political philosophers from Europe amid a heightened interest among top Communist Party officials in how social democratic parties operate, especially in northern Europe. 'It looks as if they might be ready to start methodically studying how democracies function,' one Western diplomat said. However, in his forward, Mr Li was careful not to jump the gun and overshadow the political theories being expounded by President Zemin in various works. 'China is a socialist country, so we should understand democracy differently from that in capitalist countries,' Mr Li wrote. Observers nonetheless detect a slight shift in the official position. Chinese experts previously condemned Western democracy either as a sham or of no relevance to China, a country with different needs and cultural traditions. Yet this book, especially in the annexes, makes an effort to trace the references to democracy in Chinese history, as far back as the semi-mythical Shang dynasty, when it supposedly meant 'mastery of the people'. One annexe is also unusual because it details the various experiments with Western democracy conducted by Chinese reformers, starting with the anti-opium commissioner Lin Zexu in the 1850s, and it claims, somewhat vaguely, that China was the first country to introduce the Western political system. 'It looks like they are trying to show that democracy might not be an entirely alien import,' said one Western analyst. Some believe that China is shifting to treat human rights as universal concepts applicable to everyone. Any relaxation is being linked to China's acceptance into the World Trade Organisation, Beijing's selection as host of the 2008 Olympics and the football team's qualification into the World Cup.