President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are now facing a serious backlash from conservative economists and officials over the direction and thrust of China's economic reforms and open-door policies. An intense and boisterous debate that has raged within the walls of the Communist Party and government offices for the past 12 months shows no signs of abating and has now reached the official media, signalling a further escalation. On the surface, the debate is over whether China should pursue 'equity' as the overriding priority in its future economic development blueprints, after more than 20 years of torrid economic development that made 'growth' or 'efficiency' the priority. But underneath, it marks a strong resurgence of conservatives, within and outside the ruling class, who have made blatant calls for a rolling back of economic and social reforms, blaming them for the growing social unrest and rampant corruption across the mainland. Top leaders, including President Hu and Premier Wen, seem to have stayed above the debate so far, but there are concerns the backlash could force them to slow down reforms. To detractors, China faces similar, if not more serious, conditions than those that led to the massive pro-democracy rallies and the subsequent bloody crackdown of June 1989. They have pointed to rampant official corruption, growing social unrest, widening income gaps, serious environmental degradation, soaring unemployment, worsening law and order and failed reforms in housing, medical care and education. Many have even directed their criticism against late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping for his famous policy of letting 'some people get rich first' - which they argue has contributed to the income gaps - and former president Jiang Zemin and his so-called Theory of the Three Represents, aimed at courting the support of private businessmen. So far, this growing dissatisfaction has been largely expressed and controlled through internal communications, but some have made it into the public forum through a seemingly harmless academic debate over 'equity' and 'efficiency'. On one side, Liu Guoguang, a leading economist and an adviser to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, led the calls for the leadership to reconsider the national priority of seeking economic growth over equity. He argued that the government should give at least equal attention and resources to creating 'equity' and more even income distribution to bridge the wealth gap and take better care of the people. On the other side, academics from the Central Party School and other pro-reform economists have countered that 'growth' or 'efficiency' should continue to be the priority, as this will create more wealth and lead to more rational income distribution later. Zhou Tianyong, a professor with the Central Party School, said in a recent newspaper interview that Beijing should not make 'equity' the top priority, at least in the next 20 years. Last week, leading business publication Caijing caused a stir by publishing a commentary headlined 'Reforms Should Not Waver', written by Zhou Ruijin, a deputy editor-in-chief of the People's Daily. Mr Zhou, using his pen-name Huang Fuping, mounted a robust defence of the reforms and economic progress, arguing that the nation's problems were not a result of reforms but rather of reforms that had not gone far enough. Mr Zhou first achieved national fame for advocating faster economic reforms in late 1991 and early 1992, when China was faced with a similar backlash in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown. What will happen next? It is impossible to expect Mr Hu and Mr Wen to cave in to the pressure, not least because the boat has sailed too far to return. Even if they wanted to, the powerful interest groups that have benefited from the economic reforms - or the reforms' loopholes - in the past 20 years would not allow them to. However, the rising chorus of dissatisfaction is becoming too powerful to ignore. Many have even speculated Beijing's recent media crackdown including the shutdown of the Bingdian Weekly is part of reactions to appease conservatives. Striking a balance between the two camps will remain a top priority for Mr Hu and Mr Wen in the months ahead.