by Ray Fleming

The Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao had some remarkable things to say about China's future this week during the three-hour televised press conference he gave after attending what will be his final National Peoples Congress. In October most leading government figures will be replaced after having served for ten years. Perhaps that is why Mr Wen felt able to speak so freely but he is a respected figure and his views will carry weight into the future.

In his prepared statement and in answering questions from Chinese and international journalists Mr Wen stressed the “urgent need” for political and economic reforms in China and -- in a remarkable passage -- he warned that if they were not introduced a “tragedy such as the Cultural Revolution” could happen again. Reference to events in 1966-76 which almost brought China to its knees are rare, especially in the context of reform, but Mr Wen clearly intended his concern to be understood. He was almost equally forthright in speaking about democracy, saying that the existing village elections should be extended to towns and counties. And, in perhaps his most striking comment, he said that “the trend to democracy by Arab people cannot be held back by any force and must be respected”. It is difficult to recall liberal reform thinking such as Mr Wen Jiabao's ever being advocated by a Chinese prime minister in the past.

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