Outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has warned that China could face a return to the revolutionary turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in the absence of further political reform.
Speaking at his last press conference at the end of the 10-day parliamentary sessions in Beijing, Wen also hit out at Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai, whose government has been at the center of a political scandal in recent weeks.
While he gave no concrete details of the political reforms he referred to, Wen, 69, who with China's president Hu Jintao is due to hand over power to the next generation of Chinese leaders later this year, said he was "seized by a strong sense of responsibility" to speak out.
Citing widespread official corruption, a widening gap between rich and poor, and weak public trust in the government, Wen warned of the "judgment of history," which would be visited on a government that fails to take steps in the right direction.
Public mention of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which millions of people were persecuted at the hands of kangaroo courts amid widespread regional and factional battles among Party leaders, is rare among China's political elite today.
Risk of chaos
Wen's comments came just days after Li Rui, a former political secretary to late supreme leader Mao Zedong, also warned that the current Party emphasis on cultural reform risks repeating the chaos and bloodshed of the Mao era.
Sources among China's political elite say that many of the leftist, Maoist old guard in the arty are calling in private for a return to the "continuous revolution" of that time as a way of cleansing the Party of corruption and moral decay.
"Without successful political reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic system reform," Wen told reporters at a carefully orchestrated news conference in the Great Hall of the People.
"The gains we have made in this area may also be lost," Wen warned.
"New problems that have cropped up in China's society will not be fundamentally resolved and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again," the premier said.
He also delivered a rebuke to a rising political star, Chongqing Party secretary Bo Xilai, whose second-in-command and graft-busting police chief Wang Lijun broke cover from political infighting last month and spent the night in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
"The current Party committee and the government of Chongqing must seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons from this incident," Wen told reporters.
In an apparent side-swipe at Bo's populist campaign to fight graft and bring back the "red" values in the songs of the Mao era, Wen warned that the endless political campaigns of that time had sidetracked China's climb out of poverty.
"We will give the people an answer to the results of the investigation and the handling [of the Wang Lijun case], so that it can withstand the test of law and history," he said.
But he added: "I should assume responsibility for the problems that have occurred in China's economy and society during my term in office, for which I feel truly sorry."
Concern over image
Asked about his retirement plans, Wen said he might like to visit Taiwan, the now democratic island which has been governed separately from China since the Nationalist government fled there in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao's forces on the mainland.
U.S.-based China analyst Willy Lam said that Wen, at the end of his political career, is now concerned about his historical image.
"I think he is speaking on his own account, and he doesn't want to drag in anyone else," Lam said.
"He still wants to speak out in favor of political reforms, even though none of his colleagues on the Politburo or its standing committee will implement them."
"He is concerned about his place in history, so today he was speaking in his own defense in order to leave evidence for the historical record," he added.
Guangxi-based commentator Mo Jufeng said Wen's words lacked power in a political elite where the families of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and his allies still held all the power behind the scenes.
"Wen Jiabao's policies will never get out of Zhongnanhai," Mo said, referring to the walled palace enclave housing the highest echelons of government at the heart of Beijing.
Reported by Jiang Pei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.