BEIJING, Sep 30 (Reuters) In a bold jab before a key meeting of China's Communists, a 90-year-old former secretary to Mao Zedong has urged the Party to embrace democracy, saying that only political freedom can end instability and corruption.
Li Rui issued his demand for citizens' rights and legal shackles on Party power in a Beijing magazine, China Across the Ages (Yanhuang Chunqiu), just over two weeks before President Hu Jintao opens the 17th Party Congress, which is set to give him five more years in power.
Hu cautiously has signalled modest political adjustments under strict one-party limits. But in a sign that liberal reformers may feel emboldened to press for bigger steps, Li argued that tinkering was not enough.
In the October edition of the outspoken magazine, Li said his country could be dragged back into past decades of chaos unless long-delayed democratisation catches up with three decades of market reforms, ending the Party's ''privileged status''.
''I believe that reforming our Party is the crux that will decide the success or failure of all of China's reforms,'' wrote Li. He joined the Communists in 1937 and served as revolutionary founder Mao's biographer and secretary in the 1950s and later as a senior official under economic reformer Deng Xiaoping.
''Our Party must lead the way in exemplary enforcement of the Constitution and guaranteeing that the people enjoy their civic rights of freedom of expression, freedom of news, freedom of publication and freedom of association.'' Li's challenge to one-party control is the boldest yet in a series of strikingly candid calls for liberalisation from older Party intellectuals this year.
Purged by Mao for doubting the calamitous policies of the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, Li remains influential among liberals shunted aside after the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, although he does not have much sway over those now in office.
But the open publication of Li's call on the sensitive eve of the Congress suggests that Hu has not been able to still calls for political relaxation even from within the Party.
Earlier this year, China Across the Ages published an essay that lamented Soviet socialism as an abject failure and urged China's Communists to follow the Nordic ''democratic socialist'' model of respecting social equality and political liberty.
''Freedom of expression is the essential condition of democracy,'' is the title of an essay in the September issue of China Across the Ages, which is sponsored by old Party reformers.
Li argued that only empowered citizens could end the corruption he said was rotting the foundations of Party rule.
He called for citizens to be encouraged to defend their rights, for legislation to protect a free news media from censorship, and for strict constitutional yokes on the long unfettered Communist Party.
Contacted by Reuters, Li's family said it was ''inconvenient'' for him to talk and he could not answer any questions.
When Hu took power about five years ago, Li circulated a similar call for reform that stirred controversy and prompted the closure of a newspaper that reprinted it.
People familiar with that earlier call have told Reuters a privately-circulated version pressed the Party to admit Deng's 1989 crackdown was a mistake.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has said it will be a long time before his country is ready to directly elect even low-ranking officials, arguing that swift reform would be a recipe for chaos.
China has nothing to fear from full-fledged democracy, Li wrote, adding that it ''will only promote social stability''.
REUTERS SG PM1725