BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday endorsed political change as a worthwhile goal — as long as it doesn't happen too soon and is closely supervised by the Chinese Communist Party.
The comments raised conjecture about whether Wen was stepping back from what were widely interpreted as stronger words in support for reform last year in an interview he gave to CNN. But knowing whether Wen had signaled an actual shift in his approach — or, even if he had been truly advocating reform last year — was all but impossible. The Chinese government reveals almost nothing of its internal deliberations.
"It is by no means easy to pursue political reform in such a big country with 1.3 billion people," Wen said at a news conference marking the end of the annual session of the rubber-stamp National People's Congress. "It requires a stable and harmonious social environment, and it needs to be taken forward in an orderly way under the leadership of the party."
Last year, he told a CNN interviewer that "the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible."
Many China observers say that when officials in Beijing speak about reform, they actually mean adjusting the structure of the Communist party to make it more efficient, and not the prospect of changing the one-party governing system itself. Official English-language transcripts often use the term "restructuring."
While almost 3,000 People's Congress delegates filed into the Great Hall of the People this month to much pomp and talk about governance, it has little real role in running the country. Instead, the nation is ruled by a nine-man politburo standing committee, of which Wen is a member.
Very little is known about the dynamics of that group.
A second standing committee member, Wu Bangguo, drew a far more conservative political line in his address to the congress last week, saying that China will not adopt a multi-party political system, and urging laws that "consolidate and improve the (Communist) party's ruling status."
Did the two men's words represent a divide within the halls of power, or just different points on the same spectrum? There are guesses in both directions.
On Monday, Wen mostly sidestepped the question of democracy, instead concentrating on social stability programs such as those that target inflation, raise wages and provide subsidized housing.
"The tone and wording of his remarks on political reform during the NPC were very different from his CNN interview," said Victor Shih, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in Chinese politics.
Recent unrest in the Arab world and Internet calls for protests inside China have alarmed the government, whose officials repeatedly have emphasized their work to make ordinary citizens happier and more secure, while also launching a massive crackdown on dissidents and suspected dissidents.
Wen's remarks could well be taken as part of that response. The popular 68-year-old prime minister emphasized that while political change is necessary, it must come slowly and be shepherded by the Communist Party.
Although Wen said that without political reform the country would risk its tremendous economic progress of the past 30 years, a point he's made previously, his description of the way forward did not suggest fast gains.
Referring to elections in which villages can choose their local leaders, who are far less powerful than Communist Party bosses, Wen said he thought it was a good start. After showing they can run things at a village level, he said, Chinese people can then progress to townships and counties.
"I believe we must pursue a step by step approach in this process," Wen said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tom on Twitter
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog