By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - A vain "screen idol" or a prophet of Chinese political change?
In the wake of China's crackdown on dissent, Premier Wen Jiabao has again promised China's citizens democracy and human rights. The response from seasoned observers in Beijing on Thursday ranged from catcalls to applause.
None, however, saw any prospect of the ruling Communist Party reining in its own vast powers before a big political shake-up next year.
As Wen prepares to retire from late 2012, he has made a habit of calling much more forthrightly for political reform than his more cautious comrades in the Communist Party elite.
Wen's latest call, made in London, stood out all the more after months of arrests and detentions of Chinese dissidents, human rights lawyers and long-time protesters that flew in the face of his mild message.
"Without democracy, there is no socialism. Without freedom, there is no real democracy," Wen told an audience at the Royal Society during his visit to Britain.
China is troubled by corruption, inequality and other social ills, said Wen, offering political reform as an antidote.
"The best way to resolve these problems is to firmly advance political structural reform and build socialist democracy under the rule of law," he said.
For skeptics, Wen's hazy words are a pre-retirement vanity project, burnishing his own reputation without venturing to achieve real change.
"This was screen idol Wen staging a performance in London," Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based lawyer and commentator, told Reuters, using a put-down (yingdi) often used by Chinese people to poke fun at the premier's heart-on-his-sleeve public manner.
Sympathetic observers said Wen is defending a liberalizing agenda that is beleaguered now but could gain ground after late 2012, when he and President Hu Jintao step down and make way for new leaders who could loosen the hardline policies of recent years.
Both sides voiced their views on Chinese Internet sites and micro-blogging services as reports of Wen's speech spread.
"He may be speaking from the heart, but it doesn't mean anything," said Chen.
"The title of his speech was 'The Path to China's Future', and so are these things he talks about -- democracy, rights -- a hundred years in the future, or five hundred years? These days, there's a lot of pent-up social tension in China, and society might not be willing to wait as long as he thinks," he said.
However, another Beijing-based lawyer and liberal commentator, Qiu Feng, said the criticism was unfair.
"I think he should be applauded. The Chinese political scene is very delicate right now. Different people want to take China in different directions, and Wen is the one (leader) who points in the direction I think we should take," said Qiu, whose real name is Yao Zhongqiu.
"Yes, this is rhetoric. But politics is to a large extent rhetoric, using words to spell out a goal and create consensus around it," said Qiu. "That's what he's doing."
But Qiu and other well-placed supporters said there was no prospect of a significant relaxation before late 2012, when a Communist Party congress will anoint a new leadership.
Even after the congress, political relaxation was by no means a given, they said.
"Wen Jiabao knows he leaves after the Congress, and he has only his rhetoric as a way to set the direction for after then," said Qiu.
NOT SO FAST
Especially since China's 1989 armed crackdown that extinguished pro-democracy protests, Beijing has reviled any notion that it should embrace Western-style democracy.
In recent months, China's leaders have revived that message, fearing that anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world could inspire challenges to their own one-party rule. China's says its own definition of human rights gives priority to basic needs, such as enough food, housing and health care.
Wen has a milder demeanor than other Party leaders, but he has defended the crackdown, and his broad notions of political reform amount to an effort to rejig, but not replace, Communist Party dominance. In London, he also chided Western "finger-pointing" over China's restrictions on human rights.
But Premier Wen, who survived the ouster of his reformist boss Zhao Ziyang in 1989, has stood out as the one senior official who has repeatedly urged reforms to give citizens more say, even if he has not spelled out what changes he favors.
He is now in the final stretch of his time in office, and he lacks a factional following in the elite that could give his calls a wider currency. As his power leaks away, Wen will have little more than his words to advance his legacy.
"I think the voices calling for faster political reform will grow louder and more urgent, and Premier Wen is heeding those calls," said Du Daozheng, a veteran Party official and former head of China's press control apparatus who has published articles urging support for Wen's calls for political reform.
"But he also has his conservative critics," Du, who is in his late 80s, said in a telephone interview.
"The views inside the Party are not a single, undivided piece of iron and Wen Jiabao represents forces who favor gradual but practical reform."
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; editing by Brian Rhoads)