A series of official media reports in recent days are fueling speculation over whether China's next generation of leaders will implement genuine political reforms, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party gears up for a crucial national congress next month.
Several state-run news outlets, including some with close ties to the Party, have hit out in recent editorials at a two-year labor camp sentence handed to a Chongqing blogger for retweeting the words "Down with the one-party dictatorship" on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo.
Yu Jincui, opinion writer for the influential Global Times tabloid, wrote last week: "It's worrying that people can still be punished for expressing or writing critical thoughts in modern China."
Yu's article said that being sentenced for negative speech was a holdover from a political tradition from the last century.
"It's outdated and goes against today's freedom of speech and rule of law," said the article, which could not have been published without top-level approval from China's political elite.
Last year, microblog user Ren Jianyu, 25, was handed a sentence of two years' "re-education through labor" in Chongqing for "incitement to subvert state power" after forwarding photographs of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao online with the words: "Down with the Chinese Communist Party" in the wake of the July 2011 deadly high-speed train crash near the eastern city of Wenzhou.
But labor camp sentences handed down during the anti-crime campaigns of ousted former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and his then-police chief Wang Lijun are now being overturned, or receiving a more sympathetic official hearing, lawyers say.
Before his fall from grace amid the country's biggest political scandal in decades, Bo had been tapped for a key position in the next generation of China's leaders, which will be decided in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress in Beijing on Nov. 8.
Meanwhile, Jiang Bixin, deputy chief of China's Supreme People's Court, published an article in the Party's own People's Daily newspaper calling for greater judicial independence, to ensure greater social stability, a key watchword of the current administration of Hu and Wen.
It identified "correctness, thoroughness, and effectiveness" as the core values, calling for "a fair, effective, and authoritative judiciary" to ensure laws were fairly implemented.
"People have a common expectation, that there should be more probity in the actual enforcement of the law," the article said.
Lawyers currently cite lack of judicial independence as the chief obstacle in achieving any sort of rule of law in China, with powerful vested interests at the local level easily able to sway court judgements in their favor.
Sticking to the law
Beijing-based lawyer Cheng Hai said China had plenty of excellent laws on the books that were simply not followed.
"They hamper lawyers' ability to do their job; they hold closed-door trials; they don't accept cases that they should accept, and they don't ... stick to the law in their judgements, for example in the case of complaints against the government," Cheng said.
Jiang's article called for a mechanism to be set up to protect judicial authority, as well as a body which could issue interpretations and plug loopholes in the law and a system for training legal professionals.
But many are skeptical that the public calls for systemic reform will lead to any real change under China's next administration, which is expected to be headed by current Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
"This sounds very nice, but basically it's rubbish," said U.S.-based Chinese lawyer Ding Xiaoji. "China's judiciary is in reality a tool of the Party, for the protection of its own grip on power."
"The highest judicial body in the land is the standing committee of the National People's Congress ... which has no free elections or freedom of expression," Ding said. "It doesn't represent the will of the people, but the will of the Party."
Calls for reform persist in the public domain, nonetheless, and a recent opinion poll carried out by a U.S. company found that around half of respondents like the idea of a U.S.-style democracy in China.
The survey of Chinese attitudes by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed that as public confidence in Chinese institutions, from government bureaucracies to the health-care system, deteriorates, appreciation of other possible systems of government is growing.
Burgeoning discontent over issues from corruption to food safety left some 52 percent of people expressed a positive view of American-style democracy, according to the Washington Post, particularly among well-educated urbanites.
On Wednesday, a professor at the People's University in Beijing penned an open letter to China's leaders calling for the country to move to a federal, democratic republic of China.
Such a move, Leng Jiefu argued, would solve the problem of relations with Taiwan, and the political legacy of the military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
"We are facing conflicts of a political, economic, ideological, and military nature that threaten, in the long term, to rip us apart from north to south," Leng wrote.
A recent U.S. congressional study found a huge disconnect between the growing demands of the Chinese people for reforms and Beijing’s ability to meet the deluge of such requests.
In a year marked by a major internal political scandal and leadership transition, the report said, Chinese officials appeared more concerned with ‘‘maintaining stability’’ and preserving the status quo than with addressing grassroots calls for reform across all levels of society.
Beijing has intensified a nationwide clampdown on dissident writers and rights activists ahead of the party congress. Police have launched a "stability" drive, with many rights activists and dissidents reported to be under house arrest, either in their homes or in out-of-town locations like holiday resorts.
Others are being held under criminal detention on charges they say are excuses to limit their freedom over the transition period.
Reported by Xin Yu, Lin Ping, and Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.