HONG KONG—President Hu Jintao has announced that the southern city of Shenzhen, once the cradle of China's economic reforms, will begin experimenting with political reforms, including "democratic elections," although critics remain skeptical that real change will ensue.
"We will continue to push forward the self-improvement of the socialist political system...expanding socialist democracy with democratic elections according to the law, democratic policies, democratic management and supervision," Hu told a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone on Monday.
"The central government will continue to support bold experimentation and pioneering work in the special economic zones," he said.
But a commentary published last weekend by the official news agency Xinhua appeared to quash those hopes for broader reforms.
"Rather than copying the prevalent multi-party system in the West, China aims to blaze a different trail by expanding democracy and autonomy for its 1.3 billion people based on existing political framework," said the Aug. 29 commentary.
"The reform is aimed at securing the governing party status of the Communist Party of China, under whose leadership other parties jointly participate in state affairs through political consultation," it said.
Clashes with city officers
As Hu arrived in the city this weekend to promise reforms, clashes broke out in Shenzhen's Longhua township between security personnel and an angry crowd after officials tried to clear the streets of hawkers and stall-holders.
Late on Saturday, hundreds of people faced down several "chengguan," or city officers who patrol the streets to control illegal vending operations and bad parking, after word spread that the officers had beat a vendor and her infant son.
"It was past 10:30 p.m. by the time we finished work," said an employee at a nearby shopping mall. "They had sealed off the area, and there were several thousand people there, over by McDonald's."
"I heard people saying that a kid had been hurt, and that this was the reaction; it caused quite a sensation," she said.
An employee who answered the phone at Longhua township's Minzhi Street neighborhood committee offices said four people had been detained by police for "making trouble" during the incident.
A Shenzhen resident surnamed Li blamed the chengguan officials for their lack of education. "They don't know how they should enforce the law, and they just use violence when they get into a situation like this," he said.
The transformation of Shenzhen from a quiet fishing village into the first Special Economic Zone able to accept foreign investment in August 1980 ushered in three decades of massive social change and breakneck economic growth.
Amid growing social unrest, a widening income gap, and rampant official corruption, China's leaders have repeatedly warned that the ruling Communist Party will need to reform if it is to stay in power.
However, official rhetoric has never called for a multi-party democracy, and critics said they doubted that Hu meant the same thing as they did by political reform and democratic elections.
Shenzhen-based rights activist Chen Shuwei said the president had been talking about socialist democratic reforms.
"According to my understanding, this means democracy under the control of the Chinese Communist Party." Chen said. "It's just for show."
"They talk about the rule of law as well, but in actual fact we have never had it. So I think these reforms are fake," he said.
And user "huojianyaoming" wrote on the microblogging service Twitter: "If anything is empty bombastic talk, then it's this talk of making the economic zones even better by Hu Jintao."
A visit by premier Wen Jiabao last month also hinted at political change in the city, sparking a discussion forum in a northern Beijing holiday resort hastily convened by politically active netizens to discuss his speech.
Organizers at the Miyun Reservoir meeting appeared hopeful that Wen's speech might herald a new era of political change in China, similar to that proposed in the controversial document "Charter '08", whose co-author Liu Xiaobo was jailed for subversion in December 2009.
The Shenzhen experiment would consist of measures aimed at ending the privileged lifestyle of government employees, for example, by smashing civil servants' "iron rice bowls" guaranteeing jobs for life, Xinhua said.
The reforms would also seek to create a clear distinction between government and non-government civic organizations.
Shenzhen's 5th Party Congress voted in May to allow the public nomination of candidates for leading posts, and to allow the competitive election of more posts than before.
"By 2015, at least half of Shenzhen's new promotions for leadership positions below bureau level will be decided through competitive election," Xinhua said.
Wang Youjin, political science researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the reforms showed the government realized that political restructuring was now a crucial step.
"They will have to take it step by step, one thing at a time, and by carrying them out experimentally in a single region first."
Under reforms pioneered by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Shenzhen, just across the border from then British-run Hong Kong's port facilities and financial hub, offered lower taxes and less red tape to attract overseas investors.
Its example was soon followed by neighboring Zhuhai and Shantou in Guangdong province, the port of Xiamen in the southeastern province of Fujian and the southern island of Hainan.
Since the reforms started, the city has seen economic growth at a rate of 25.8 percent over the past 30 years, compared with about 9.8 percent for the entire country.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and Ding Xiao, and in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.