China Party Chief Stresses Reform, Censors Relax Grasp on Internet

Xi Jinping
Lintao Zhang
Xi Jinping

China must deepen reforms to perfect its market economy and strengthen rule of law, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping said in southern Guangdong, echoing groundbreaking comments by reformist senior leader Deng Xiaoping in the same province 20 years ago.

Xi's call for reform was reported on Monday, coinciding with an apparent easing of Internet search restrictions that the party has energetically used to suppress information that could threaten one-party rule.

China's largest microblog service unblocked searches for the names of many top political leaders in a possible sign of looser controls a month after new senior officials were named to head the ruling party.

Searches on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog for party chief Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and other leaders - terms that have long been barred under strict censorship rules - revealed detailed lists of news reports and user comments.

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

"The government earnestly wants to study the issues that are being brought up, and wants to perfect the market economy system ... by deepening reform, and resolve the issues by strengthening rule of law," Xi was quoted by Xinhua state news agency as saying.

Experts say that unless the stability-obsessed party leadership pushes through stalled reforms, the nation risks economic malaise and social woes that could deepen unrest and threaten its grip on power.

It was too early to detect a change of heart on censorship, but Zhan Jiang, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the signs were good. "Things are changing quietly, and it matches what Xi Jinping said 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 the centre of recent New York Times reports that said his family had accumulated massive fortunes during his tenure, were still blocked on Monday.

Chinese social media sites have posed a unique challenge for party leaders whose overarching goal is to maintain political control, while at the same time allowing people to blow off steam.

Analysts have been searching for signs that China's new leaders might steer a path of political reform. Many expected at least a temporary loosening of censorship rules after the 18th Party Congress.

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