- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

BEIJING — China’s premier warned Wednesday that ruinous turmoil that engulfed China in the past could re-emerge unless the country tackles political reforms, and he rebuked a populist fellow leader over a scandal that brought infighting among officials into public view.

In a three-hour news conference, Wen Jiabao renewed a call for unspecified political reforms, particularly of the Communist Party leadership, saying that without them China’s hard-won prosperity might fizzle.

No democratic firebrand, Mr. Wen has issued similarly vague pleas before - and become a popular if lone voice among senior leaders by doing so. The news conference was the 69-year-old leader ‘s last scheduled briefing before he steps down in a year after a decade in office.

He said he was “seized by a strong sense of responsibility” to speak out and referred repeatedly to the judgment of history. Corruption, the rich-poor gap and plummeting government credibility that beset China require institutional changes, he said.

To cap his plea, he made rare mention of the Cultural Revolution, 10 years of factional battles and radical egalitarianism that spiraled into violence in which millions were persecuted and many reform-minded leaders were jailed, sent into internal exile or left to die.

“Without successful political reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic system reform. The gains we have made in this area may also be lost,” Mr. Wen told reporters in the Great Hall of the People.

“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 references to the past and the reflective tone turned the premier’s news conference into something of a swan song for the most popular member of the usually remote leadership.

As the No. 3 official in the party leadership, who is primarily responsible for the economy, Mr. Wen fielded a range of questions, from local government debt to currency reform.

He offered Chinese funding of U.S. infrastructure projects to create American jobs and rebalance lopsided economic ties with a crucial trading partner. He sidestepped a question asking his views of the democratic uprisings in parts of the Arab world.

Mr. Wen, President Hu Jintao and most of the leadership are stepping down to hew to unwritten rules of succession and make way for younger leaders. The turnover always invites divisive infighting that the party prefers to keep under wraps.

That image of unity was ruptured last month by the cashiering of a top official in the megacity of Chongqing who fled overnight to a U.S. consulate, reportedly to seek political asylum.

Asked about Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun’s still unexplained fall, Mr. Wen issued the harshest criticism to date of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, perhaps signaling the once-rising star is unlikely to be promoted to the uppermost ranks of power.

“The current party committee and the government of Chongqing must seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons from this incident,” Mr. Wen said.

While not mentioning Mr. Bo by name, Mr. Wen again delved into the past, saying the investigation into the scandal “should be able to stand the test of the law and history.”

He recalled the tortuous diversions into political campaigns that sidetracked China’s climb from poverty to world power. The comments seemed a swipe at Mr. Bo, who has promoted mass sing-alongs of communist anthems and other “red” culture that some see as worrisome preference of the extreme politics of the past.

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