BEIJING -- Soft-spoken, bespectacled and so benign that his nickname is "Grandpa," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has emerged in recent weeks as the lone champion within the top ranks of the Communist Party for political reform.
At a time when the Communist Party seems confident with its handling of its burgeoning economy, Wen has developed a habit of speaking out on political reform. "The people's desire and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible," Wen said in an interview aired Oct. 3 on CNN -- one of half a dozen similar comments uttered by Wen since late August.
It's hardly the language of a firebrand, but by the standards of today's Communist Party, these are inspiring words that have inspired faint hopes among reform-minded Chinese.
As a four-day meeting of the party's 300-plus central committee members opened Friday, more than 100 intellectuals released a petition calling for the body to follow through on Wen's promises of reform. "We call upon the Chinese authorities to make good on their oft-repeated promise to reform the political system," said the letter, which is being circulated online.
Earlier in the week, a group of 23 retired Chinese party members and officials issued a similar call, voicing their support for Wen in a toughly worded open letter calling on the Chinese government to abolish censorship.
"By speaking out with such a strong voice about political reform, Premier Wen has gotten us all very excited," said Xiao Mo, a retired expert in cultural relics who was among the original signers of the letter to the central committee, which has since been signed by hundreds of others. He believes that the letter has helped to advance political reform on the agenda of this weekend's meeting, which was originally expected to focus on the next five-year plan for the economy.
Not everyone believes the 68-year-old premier is sincere; critics say he is merely a shill for the Communist Party, playing "good cop" as a foil to Hu Jintao, a more imposing and authoritarian figure. A controversial new book published this summer in Hong Kong even derided him with the title, "China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao."
"Wen is just playing a role that the Politburo wants him to play. He is like anesthesia for the Chinese public," said Yu Jie, the book's author, who is now under house arrest in Beijing along with many others who are friends with Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned writer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
Yu said he was not optimistic about political reforms in China in the near future. "As long as Liu Xiaobo remains in jail, all of Wen's words are useless."
Wen is perhaps the most beloved figure in the Chinese leadership, projecting an image of a kinder, gentler Communist Party. A geologist by training, he is quick to shed tears on camera, whether he is shaking hands with AIDS patients or comforting earthquake victims.
Curiosity about his political sympathies was piqued by an important cameo role he played during pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. At the time a party functionary, Wen was assigned to accompany Communist Party Secretary-General Zhao Ziyang to Tiananmen Square when he gave a tearful address through a bullhorn in an attempt to open a dialogue. Whether Wen actually agreed with Zhao (who was sacked shortly afterward by hard-liner Li Peng) or helped in his undoing has long been a matter of debate.
As premier, Wen has often spoken about the need for political reforms, albeit with wishy-washy language making clear he does not support Western-style democracy for China. But his comments have been somewhat crisper of late.
During a speech in Shenzhen on Aug. 21, he said, "Without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost." In the CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, he added, "I believe freedom of speech is indispensible."
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post counted seven separate occasions over the course of 43 days in which Wen spoke of political reform.
It is unclear to what extent Wen has support within the Communist Party. Most of what he has said about political reform was not reported in the state media.
And in a Chinese context, "political reform" often means nothing more than reform within the existing structure of the one-party state, rooting out corruption at the lower levels of the party and making the party's inner workings more transparent.
"We aren't talking about drastic change in the political system. We are talking about how we can cut the sausage one piece at a time," said retired academic Xiao Mo. He said his group of ex-officials support Wen, as opposed to more outspoken activists such as Liu Xiaobo. "The people like Liu Xiaobo who are calling for Western-style democracy are setting the bar too high. If millions of people came out to demonstrate for democracy, there would be a crackdown like happened in 1989, and Wen would become a scapegoat and we would have a chaotic situation that would set us back again."
Along with much of the Chinese leadership, Wen is scheduled to leave office in 2012, which his supporters say makes him mindful about his legacy.
"In the same way that your Western politicians pay attention to God, Chinese leaders worry about history and how they will be viewed," said Li Datong, a retired editor who is backing Wen's calls for reform. "Wen Jiabao is at a point where nobody can remove him from office and he has to think about what he can accomplish in the remaining two years."
Chinese media say the central committee meeting will concentrate on "reforms in the social and political areas" and on the growing income disparity between urban and rural Chinese.
It is also anticipated that Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice president, will be named vice chairman of the central military commission, an appointment that would strengthen his standing to succeed Hu Jintao as president in 2012.