The head of China's rubber-stamp parliament cited Western democracy no less than nine times in a speech Monday — to illustrate what the country would not become.
China will never be a multiparty state with separation of powers, he said. It will not have an independent judiciary. Elections will still have mostly government-approved candidates on the ballot.
The hard line taken by National People's Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo was an apparent response to renewed calls for political reform from both inside and outside the country.
Observers are taking Wu's speech as a sign of just how reform-shy the system has become when the global economic crisis is beating at China's door and a series of sensitive anniversaries await — including that of the bloody 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Many say the supremely conservative trend is likely to long outlive the current crisis.
"I don't see any progress or breakthroughs in the Chinese political system for a long time to come," said Yu Jie, a social and political critic whose writings have been banned for the past five years.
Addressing the congress' annual nine-day meeting, Wu defended China's one-party communist system and drew clear distinctions with multiparty political systems in the West.
China, he said, would never introduce a system of "multiple parties holding office in rotation," nor would it allow a separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, or a legislature made up of lower and upper houses.
Though hardly new, his arguments were notably more extensive than in past. Last year, Wu, the Communist Party's No. 2 leader, made only a passing reference to the separation of powers and a bicameral parliament.
No independent judiciary
Wu also appeared to rule out moves toward greater judicial independence, saying the all-powerful Communist Party would continue to dictate standards and priorities that it expected courts and prosecutors to adhere to.
"The Western model of a legal system cannot be copied mechanically in establishing our own," Wu said.
Wu's remarks appeared to be a deliberate rebuttal to critics calling for greater liberalization, including legalizing opposition parties and direct elections for legislative bodies.
The boldest such call, known as "Charter '08," began circulating on the Internet in December and won endorsements from hundreds of intellectuals and pro-democracy activists both inside China and overseas. It declares authoritarian rule on the wane and calls for a new Chinese constitution, separation of powers, competitive elections and other hallmarks of Western democracy.
Authorities have suppressed all mention of the document in Chinese media while harassing or detaining its drafters and signatories.
Yet, word of it has spread through overseas reports, raising among the leadership uncomfortable associations with similar calls for political liberalization that led to the fall of communist regimes in the former Soviet bloc, said Barry Sautman, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"I don't think they believe it will make inroads among the average Chinese, but they may fear its impact on intellectuals," Sautman said.
Bao Tong, a former secretary to Premier Zhao Ziyang who was deposed for siding with the Tiananmen student protesters, said Wu's remarks underscored the government's complete rejection of its earlier flirtation with Western notions such as direct elections and separation of powers.
'China will go its own way'
"They are saying that China will go its own way and reject the universally recognized achievements of human civilization, which are human rights, democracy, and the responsiveness to public opinion," said Bao, who spent seven years behind bars for leaking state secrets in the wake of the protests.
Elsewhere in his remarks, Wu also outlined the past year's work by the NPC's Standing Committee, the 74-member body that handles legislative business when the almost 3,000-member NPC is not in session. NPC members are carefully vetted and mainly serve to discuss and approve decisions already reached by the party leadership.
Wu said China aimed to establish a "legal system of socialism with Chinese characteristics" by next year.
Without explicitly defining that system, Wu reaffirmed the government's preference for handing down regulations through administrative fiat rather than allowing laws to develop through court rulings.
He said top legislative work this year would focus on drawing up laws covering social programs, such as health care, pensions and education. Beijing has been pushing for more spending in those areas to encourage families to spend their paychecks on goods and services that fuel the economy rather than on expenses such as medical bills.