China Editor Makes Bold Call for Democracy

February 5, 2007 12:00 am Last Updated: February 5, 2007 12:00 am

BEIJING—China must pursue democratic reforms to defuse economic and social imbalances threatening the country's stability, a former editor of the People's Daily said in a rare open call for political reform.

Zhou Ruijin is a retired editor of the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece who shot to fame in the early 1990s as a cheerleader for the market reform policies of former leader Deng Xiaoping and has since emerged as an advocate of political change.

On Monday the Southern Metropolis Daily, a tabloid in the commercial hub Guangzhou, published a bold interview with him suggesting that debate over the direction and pace of reform may reignite as China prepares for a big party meeting later this year.

Zhou told the newspaper that China is weighed down by crushing social and economic problems – imbalances between its relatively wealthy east and poor west, waste of natural resources and environmental havoc, gaping income disparities, a threadbare social welfare net and rampant corruption.

Faster Reform

The cure to all these, Zhou said, lay in faster democratic reform. “What I've raised is pushing forward political system reform above all reform of the government administration.”

He also called for expanded direct elections, currently only allowed at the village level, as well allowing “civil society” to grow while the party retreats.

Zhou's bold comments come as the Chinese Communist Party is preparing for its Congress later this year, when party chief Hu Jintao is likely to replace top officials and install potential successors.

Since becoming party general secretary in 2002, Hu has cracked down on human rights activists and probing journalists while promising poorer citizens higher incomes and better services.

Last year, the populist drift under Hu sparked claims from liberal intellectuals and some policy makers that China was backing away from the late Deng's embrace of the market.

While Zhou has issued calls for greater market reform in smaller journals, his arguments for democratic change in a widely read newspaper suggest debate over political reform may continue even in this sensitive year.