China: Time of Transition

China Party Chief Stresses Reform, Censors Relax Grasp on Internet

Xi Jinping
Lintao Zhang

China must deepen reforms toperfect its market economy and strengthen rule of law, CommunistParty chief Xi Jinping said in southern Guangdong, echoinggroundbreaking comments by reformist senior leader Deng Xiaopingin the same province 20 years ago.

Xi's call for reform was reported on Monday, coinciding withan apparent easing of Internet search restrictions that theparty has energetically used to suppress information that couldthreaten one-party rule.

China's largest microblog service unblocked searches for thenames of many top political leaders in a possible sign of loosercontrols a month after new senior officials were named to headthe ruling party.

Searches on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogfor party chief Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and otherleaders - terms that have long been barred under strictcensorship rules - revealed detailed lists of news reports anduser comments.

Xi's comments on the economy came on Sunday during a trip toGuangdong where he paid tribute to Deng, whose visit in 1992ushered in an era of breakneck economic reform and growth.

"The government earnestly wants to study the issues that arebeing brought up, and wants to perfect the market economy system... by deepening reform, and resolve the issues by strengtheningrule of law," Xi was quoted by Xinhua state news agency assaying.

Experts say that unless the stability-obsessed partyleadership pushes through stalled reforms, the nation riskseconomic malaise and social woes that could deepen unrest andthreaten its grip on power.

It was too early to detect a change of heart on censorship,but Zhan Jiang, a professor at Beijing Foreign StudiesUniversity, said the signs were good. "Things are changing quietly, and it matches what Xi Jinpingsaid before - to achieve progress and change in a steady way,"Zhan said.

(Read More: CNBC's Coverage of China's Leadership Transition)

Various search terms for Premier Wen Jiabao, who was at thecentre of recent New York Times reports that said his family hadaccumulated massive fortunes during his tenure, were stillblocked on Monday.

Chinese social media sites have posed a unique challenge forparty leaders whose overarching goal is to maintain politicalcontrol, while at the same time allowing people to blow offsteam.

Analysts have been searching for signs that China's newleaders might steer a path of political reform. Many expected atleast a temporary loosening of censorship rules after the 18thParty Congress.

"Excessively strict control of the Internet will only makethings worse," said Hu Xingdou, a professor at Beijing Instituteof Technology. "So we need to allow people to speak and allowthem to voice their grievances."