Jonathan Fenby writes in the Financial Times:
Since the brutal crackdown on protesters in June 1989, the assumption has been that politics do not matter on the mainland. But the absence of political liberalisation may prove an Achilles heel as Chinese society becomes ever more fluid and its economy ever more complex.
This has long been highlighted in the west but this week the issue came to the fore in China itself with the publication of an open letter by a group of veteran reformers demanding the government dismantle its elaborate censorship apparatus and accelerate political reform.
The forecasts in the west in the 1990s that economic liberalisation in emerging countries was bound to bring political liberalisation have been disproved in China, though not across the Taiwan Strait. The mainland’s middle class has been co-opted into the system rather than playing the role of the bourgeoisie in 19th-century Europe, and probably has little desire to see hundreds of millions of poorer urban and rural residents getting the vote to press their own interests.
Still, setting aside moral and ethical arguments for democracy, there is a practical issue at stake and it has been brought to the fore by no lesser a figure than Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister. In remarks at the end of August in the southern city of Shenzhen, the symbolic home of the Dengist revolution, Mr Wen said China needed to protect the democratic and legal rights of the people; mobilise citizens to manage state, economic, social and cultural affairs in accordance with the law; resolve the problems of a centralised power that lacks checks and balances; tackle corruption; and open channels for public monitoring and criticism of government.
For more on the open letter by party elders, see “In China, silence greets talk of reform” by the Washington Post.