The Communist Party of China (CPC) is facing calls to take forward political and economic reforms at its leadership transition Congress, which opens here on Thursday.

A cross-section of officials, retired party elites and scholars have expressed renewed concerns that interest groups are blocking long-debated measures. “Reforms should not be abandoned and promises should not be discarded,” said Hu Deping, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference — a top political advisory body — and the son of former CPC General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a leader known for his liberal views.

Priorities

The younger Mr. Hu, seen as representing a section of the party dissatisfied with the pace of political reforms, wrote in an article published in the Beijing-based Economic Observer newspaper that the CPC’s pressing priorities ahead of the congress must be “pursuing political and economic reforms and restoring the Constitution as the basis of government”.

His call followed another commentary in Qiushi (or Seeking Truth), the CPC’s ideological journal, that warned “any standstill or regression will find no way out” ahead of the once-in-a-decade leadership change.

On Thursday morning, CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao will open the party’s 18th National Congress, whose 2,268 delegates will, over the course of the next week, choose the party’s Central Committee. Following the conclusion of the Congress on November 14, the 370-member Central Committee will choose the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the party’s top ruling authority.

Only two members of the nine-member PBSC — Vice- President Xi Jinping, to succeed Mr. Hu as General Secretary following the congress; and Vice Premier Li Keqiang — will hold on to their posts. A preparatory committee appointed Mr. Xi as the secretary-general of the congress on Wednesday, reaffirming his status as Mr. Hu’s successor.

At the Congress, the party will deliberate on reducing the size of the PBSC to seven — a move, according to officials, aimed at making the body more nimble. However, with outgoing General Secretary Mr. Hu and his predecessor Jiang Zemin manoeuvring to push for posts on the top body for their allies, it remains unclear if consensus will be reached.

Slow pace

Qiao Mu, an outspoken Professor who has criticised the slow pace of reforms, said in an interview with The Hindu that the Chinese people had “bigger expectations than ever before for meaningful reforms” ahead of the Congress, particularly in the wake of corruption scandals involving purged Politburo member Bo Xilai and the former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun.

Moves to encourage direct elections at People’s Congresses at the lowest levels of government were long overdue, he said, calling for measures to increase transparency in party affairs.

Cai Mingzhao, a spokesman for the Congress, acknowledged on Wednesday in a briefing that the two corruption cases held “extremely profound lessons” for the party, but he did not provide specifics regarding any reform measures that will be discussed at the congress.

The Congress, he said, will ratify a move to amend the party Constitution, to include the ideology put forward by Mr. Hu called the “Scientific Outlook on Development”, aimed at sustainable and balanced growth. He told reporters that there would be no other significant amendment, rejecting recent media reports which said the CPC was considering dropping Mao Zedong’s ideology from its Constitution. One scholar with party ties said some liberal academics had proposed such a move, but added that it was “unthinkable” for the party to turn its back on its founding leader.

In recent weeks, a cross-section of retired officials and scholars have called for the Congress to push forward bold reforms to introduce greater democracy within the party and to address economic imbalances and rising inequality.

Mr. Hu Deping, in his commentary, wrote there was a need to ensure the protection of constitutional rights. “In the areas of politics, economics, society and culture, there are many incidents of disrespect or infringements of the civil rights stipulated in the constitution”, he wrote.

“The power of the party is interfering with the judicial system and many laws and regulations are not in compliance with the spirit and requirements of the constitution. In some cases, violations are serious.”

He also called for economic reforms, starting with curbing the expansion of State-owned enterprises seen over the past decade — a trend which many economists here say has led to inefficiency and bred corruption. Incoming general secretary Xi Jinping is reported to have met Mr. Hu in recent weeks, triggering speculation in Beijing that he was signalling his backing for some reform measures.

Mr. Hu Deping’s comments were echoed in a recent paper published by Strategy and Reform, an official think-tank, which warned of a potential “crisis” in China’s economic model. The paper said the next decade would be “the last opportunity for pursuing reforms” to rebalance the economy away from investment-led and State-driven growth.

China in transition

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