Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao marked the start of his last year in office by warning that the failure to bring about continued political and economic reforms could result in a second Cultural Revolution in China, in remarks seen as a strong push back against newly ascendant conservative forces within the Communist Party.

Mr. Wen, in his last meeting with journalists, an annual — and highly scripted — interaction that takes place following the closing session of Parliament, struck an unusually emotional tone, beginning his remarks with an almost tearful apology accepting responsibility for the government's failings.

The 70-year-old Premier, who along with President Hu Jintao will step down later this year, said he was “truly sorry” for economic and social problems that China faced, which he blamed on “incompetent abilities and institutional and other factors”.

He also repeated the calls for reform that he has been voicing increasingly towards the end of his tenure. As before, his message was far from specific, only revealing the obstacles faced. While the government needed to “create conditions to allow people to criticise our work”, he ruled out any significant reforms, stressing that holding direct elections, now only allowed at the village-level, would be a very gradual process and “suited to national conditions”.

He said reforms had “come to a critical stage”, warning that without political reforms the gains made through three decades of economic reform and opening-up could be lost and “historical tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution may happen again”. He said the “the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and feudalism have yet to be fully eliminated”, though the Communist Party had adopted resolutions to take forward reforms in the wake of that disastrous decade.

His comments come amid a drive by a newly ascendant Left that has questioned the push for reforms. This has been most evident in the popular campaigns of Chongqing Party chief and Politburo member Bo Xilai, who has brought back the singing of Red songs and called for reviving Mao-inspired populist policies.

Mr. Bo was until recently seen as a key figure in the next generation of the leadership and a frontrunner for a seat on the next Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member group that effectively runs China.

His future has, however, been cast in doubt amid an on-going investigation into his once-close associate and former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun. Mr. Wang turned up at a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu last month reportedly seeking asylum, in an incident that embarrassed the authorities ahead of the Parliament session.

Mr. Wen appeared to have come prepared to talk about Mr. Bo in some detail.

He said the Chongqing authorities need to “seriously reflect on and draw lessons” from the incident, which Beijing had “taken very seriously”.

Even more pointedly, he invoked the CPC's decision taken in 1978 at its third plenum to carry forward reform and opening up and draw a line on the Cultural Revolution, in an apparent reference to Chongqing's policies. The unusual public criticism of another Politburo member, which was likely backed by Mr. Hu, has cast further doubt on Mr. Bo's future.

“Any practice we take must be based on experience and lessons we have gained from history and serve the people's interest,” Mr. Wen said. “I believe the people fully recognise this point.”

The Premier said he would leave office “with the courage to face history”. “There are people who will appreciate what I have done but there are also people who will criticise me,” he said. “Ultimately, history will have the final say.”

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