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Change in China's leadership 'last chance' for reform

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 8:36 p.m.

BEIJING — China risks economic malaise, deepening unrest and ultimately the Communist Party's grip on power unless its next leader, Xi Jinping, pushes through stalled reforms, experts close to the government have warned.

The warnings, striking for their openly urgent tone, have been aired inside the party and publicly, and reflect an internal debate about the direction of the leadership that takes power next month.

“There is a potential crisis in China's model of economic growth,” said a paper from Strategy and Reform, one of several think tanks and groups that throughout this year have plied officials with blueprints for Xi's coming decade in power.

“The next decade might be the last opportunity for actively pursuing reform, and we should treasure this last chance,” said the paper released on the group's website (www.reform.org.cn).

“China is confronting a perilous jump, one that it can neither hide from nor avoid no matter what,” said the paper from the group, which includes academics, company executives, government policy advisers and some officials.

China will begin the party congress this month— where Xi is set to take over from Hu Jintao — with the economy on track for its slowest annual growth rate in at least 13 years, while social stresses, such as ire over corruption, land grabs and unmet welfare demands, have stirred protests.

“China's economic and social contradictions seem to be nearing a threshold,” prominent Chinese economist Wu Jinglian was quoted as saying in Caijing magazine.

Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle permanently in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.

Most party-linked proponents said in interviews that political reform must start at the grassroots and be incremental; they called outright democracy a distant or unrealistic idea.

“You can't solve all of these problems in a decade, but you can address the reforms urgently needed by ordinary people and show that you're heading in the right direction,” said Deng Yuwen, an editor at the Study Times, published by the Central Party School, which trains officials.

He recently shot to prominence after publishing an essay lamenting the lost chances for reform under President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao. He said their successors must move faster.

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