As students across China prepared for their National Day vacation last week, President Hu Jintao ordered the Communist Party Politburo into the classroom. He arranged for two respected professors to lecture the leaders on a touchy curriculum: law and democracy. During a 90-minute talk, the professors discussed such sensitive notions as how "the power to rule derives from the constitution and from law," says a source who attended the meeting. Hu closed the session with his firmest comment to date on political reform: "The party must enrich forms of democracy, perfect democratic procedures, expand citizens' orderly political participation and ensure the people have democratic elections."
Still, comparing Hu to Thomas Jefferson is premature. At last week's meeting, Hu prefaced his comments by saying, "most important is maintaining party leadership." Moreover, the study session coincided with the detention of a local party official in southwestern China who organized a direct election for a township leader.
Hu's comments seemed designed to encourage political experimentation, especially at the grassroots level. In the countryside, some officials are already holding public hearings and various kinds of local elections. Hu's speech, says Wang Changjiang, a professor at the Central Party School, the leadership's top training academy, "suggests the party center is also steadily recognizing that it needs to supply more" political reform. "If it doesn't," Wang says, "it can create even bigger problems."
In the 1980s, Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang arranged similar briefings for his staffersóuntil he was purged in 1989óbut kept them secret to avoid criticism. In contrast, a story on Hu's "study session" hit the front page of the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece. Hu wants extra points for addressing political reformóbut hasn't aced the class yet.