BEIJING — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao issued a sharper and more urgent call on Wednesday for political change in China, warning that the nation risked a return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution unless the ruling Communist Party overhauled its leadership structure and cleared the way for economic reform.
But as in his previous statements, Mr. Wen gave scant indication of what political change might entail, and made it clear that what he called China’s “socialist democracy” would evolve in baby steps rather than by sweeping action.
Calls for political reform in China are generally limited to changes within the Communist Party, which is guaranteed absolute rule in the nation’s constitution, and not to greater participation by average citizens. There was little to indicate that Mr. Wen’s remarks stepped outside party orthodoxy.
In his last news conference at the annual session of the nation’s handpicked legislature before he steps down as prime minister, Mr. Wen offered cautious responses to a range of questions, on topics from income inequality to unaffordable housing to self-immolations by ethnic Tibetans, that were unusually tough by previous standards.
He also offered the strongest official response yet to the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the ambitious party secretary of Chongqing metropolis who spearheaded a much-publicized crackdown on corruption with the city’s police chief at the time, Wang Lijun.
Mr. Wang briefly took refuge in an American consulate last month after apparently becoming ensnared in a separate corruption inquiry and sidelined by Mr. Bo. The ensuing nationwide sensation is believed to have tarnished Mr. Bo’s reputation and dimmed his chances to join the national leadership when a handoff of power begins this autumn.
Mr. Wen said the government had started a special investigation of the incident and would report the results to the public. He also said the city’s Communist Party leadership and municipal government “must reflect seriously and learn from the Wang Lijun incident,” implicitly calling into question Mr. Bo’s judgment in trusting Mr. Wang. Mr. Bo already had publicly conceded error in overseeing Mr. Wang, although he staunchly defended his tenure in Chongqing and the anticorruption drive.
Many of Mr. Wen’s comments on Wednesday were directed at the social problems facing average Chinese citizens, especially the income disparities and rising prices that have put a strain on families and, that party leaders fear, could spur social unrest.
Repeating measures outlined in the government’s annual report on its priorities, released earlier this month, Mr. Wen said leaders were committed to raising the minimum wage, improving education and job opportunities and expanding the nation’s now-limited social safety net.
But he also offered a few glimpses at new initiatives, suggesting that the government would impose controls on high incomes, including the salaries and bonuses of executives in state-owned corporations and banks. And he promised to make credit more affordable and available for small and medium private businesses, many of which must borrow at loan-shark rates because they cannot get money from big state-owned banks.
Mr. Wen said financial officials were considering experimental programs to address the credit shortage, and that one may be started in Wenzhou, an east-coast city that is a center of entrepreneurial activity.
Addressing China’s skyrocketing real-estate prices, which have made homes beyond the reach even of many middle-class citizens, Mr. Wen said regulators would not back off measures intended to rein in property speculation until housing was again affordable. To ease off, he said, would “cause chaos in the real-estate market.”
That doused investors’ hopes that the government would ease controls on lending to bolster the economy, triggering a 2.6 percent fall in the Shanghai Composite Index. A real-estate index dropped 3.7 percent.
Mr. Wen also addressed the United States’ demand that China allow its currency to rise in value, repeating a promise in this month’s work report to overhaul the mechanism by which the exchange rate is set. But he also signaled that any further appreciation is unlikely to be large, saying that the renminbi “is possibly near a balanced level.”
Mr. Wen’s sole display of passion was reserved for the issue of political reform, a cause he said he would promote to his last breath. His advocacy has rendered him increasingly isolated within a top leadership that, if anything, has more stubbornly resisted tinkering with the system.
In what seemed a message to the next generation of Chinese leaders, he said that political reform had reached a crucial stage, and that stalling or retreating from change “offers no way out.”
“We must press ahead with both economic structural reform and political structural reform, in particular reform in the leadership system of our party and country,” he said. Otherwise, “the gains we have made in this area will be lost, new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved and such a historic tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”
Among those problems, he pointedly noted, are increases in corruption and income disparity and a decline in the government’s credibility.
The Cultural Revolution, a decade-long purge of intellectuals, political enemies and cultural figures, enabled Mao Zedong to recapture absolute control of China after the disastrous economic failure and famines of his Great Leap Forward.
Mr. Wen’s demands for change were nevertheless offset by more tepid remarks on its pace and scope. He stressed that China must “develop our socialist democracy in a step-by-step manner” keeping in mind China’s size and circumstances.
Asked when China would let its citizens elect leaders now chosen by the party’s elite, Mr. Wen instead praised the conduct of village elections — deemed corrupt and ineffective by some scholars and villagers alike — and expressed hope that citizens might one day elect township and county officials.
Calling himself “an old steed,” Mr. Wen also engaged in a bit of self-criticism, apologizing for the mistakes of his 10-year term and adding that “there is still much room for improvement in my work.”
“I have the courage to face the people and face history,” he said. “Ultimately, history will have the final say.”