China's ruling Communist Party is dragging its feet on much-needed political reforms, hindering the country's development, according to a new report from a top Beijing university.
As voters in rival Taiwan gear up for Sunday's presidential poll, the report from the prestigious Tsinghua University portrays a government whose unwillingness to risk change is holding back the nation.
Playing on the famous description of Chinese reforms attributed to late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, "crossing the river by feeling the stones," the report concluded that the ruling Party had "become addicted to feeling stones, and now won't cross the river at all."
U.S.-based China scholar Ran Bogong said the university's annual social development report for 2011 was unusually outspoken this year, and showed the widespread support for political change among Chinese academics.
"Chinese intellectuals are raising the bar in their demands for human rights and democratic reforms," Ran said. "The most important thing is that these people have a huge amount of hope for China."
The report was published days after warnings from President Hu Jintao that "hostile" powers are seeking to "Westernize" China, and calls for the country to boost its "soft power" abroad.
"Hostile international powers are strengthening their efforts to Westernize and divide us," Hu wrote in the article, noting "ideological and cultural fields" are their main targets.
"We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them."
While 30 years of rapid economic growth in the reform era have led to an inevitable openness to the West—the relationship was fraught with exploitation and national humiliation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—China's leaders apparently fear an ideological sea change may be afoot within the ranks of the Party itself.
Wei-chin Lee, political science professor at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, said the report is just another salvo in a long-running debate about political reform.
"They had a debate in the seventies, the eighties, and the nineties, about how to reform, and at what pace," Lee said. "China has been undergoing gradual [political] reform, but reform of that kind is no reform at all."
He said that while the government has become totally focused on stability, an instant shift to a Western-style democracy in China might not work well either.
"Just because you install a democratic system doesn't mean that you end up with a genuine democracy," Lee said.
Ran agreed, saying China is unlikely to see sudden and violent change similar to the Arab Spring of 2011.
"Personally, I wouldn't support sudden, revolutionary change in China," he said. "Basically, I would be in support of peaceful reform, because revolutions can't be stopped."
China's leaders have announced "political reforms" on a number of occasions in recent years, but have also been at pains to repeat that this doesn't mean the adoption of a Western-style democratic system.
Apart from a token group of "democratic parties" which never oppose or criticize the ruling Communist Party, opposition political parties are banned in China, and those who set them up are frequently handed lengthy jail terms.
More than two million lawmakers at the county and township levels will be elected during nationwide elections, held every five years, in more than 2,000 counties and 30,000 townships from May 7, 2011 through December 2012.
But would-be independent candidates across China have been harrassed, held under house arrest, and prevented from registering in recent months.
Some Chinese pro-democracy campaigners in exile have held up Taiwan as a model for democratization on the mainland.
The Tangwai movement during the mid-1970s and early 1980s in Taiwan challenged the power of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) with the election of independent, or "outside the Party," candidates to the island's legislature.
The movement paved the way for much wider democratization in the 1990s, and many political activists of the day were also subjected to police harassment and imprisonment.
Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.