Amongst China watchers, all eyes are on the annual plenum of the Chinese Communist Party that has just begun in Beijing. When a couple of months ago some would have dismissed it as a more routine affair designed to continue the transition of power to the next leadership generation, things are now different. Liu Xiaobo's Nobel peace prize has driven discussion of political reform right to the top of the political agenda, both in China and internationally. Many are watching the moves of Wen Jiabao, a known enthusiast for some level of change, to see if and how he will push the cause further. Over at the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time Report, Russell Leigh Moses has even suggested that the plenum will witness a “showdown” within the Party.
Today's Global Times features a stand-out editorial that is eye-catching for its content. Entitled “China has to pursue gradual political reform”, the piece not only features a reference to Liu Xiaobo that is free from the standard criticism of his activities, but also argues that China must proceed at its own pace while learning from the Western democratic experience.
To have a state media organ feature this opinion (and then to see it linked to on the front page of the People's Daily Online) should make analysts ask whether the CCP is about to take a step firmly in the direction of democracy. Never mind the fact that reform may be gradual- a willingness even to acknowledge that change to the Chinese system must occur is a significant moral concession on the part of the government.
Clearly, the Party is split over whether reform is needed and how far it should go. Whether the flame lit by the Global Times is extinguished or not will much depend on how the proceedings in Beijing unfold. If the conservative camp win out against those who are pressing for change, it might well be the case that the PRC moves further away from democratic principles as a knee-jerk reaction. If the opposite happens, then the success of the reform agenda is not guaranteed. Some Chinese Communists are likely to fight progression to the end, and it will be up to the new leadership generation to realistically implement the changes. For sure, the current plenum session will be one of the most important in the Party's early 21st century history.