Delegates attend a plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) for the report works of China's Supreme People's Procuratorate and Supreme People's Court at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing 11 March 2011. (Reuters)
Premier Wen Jiabao said Monday China must seek political reform but neither gave proposals nor a timetable for expanding its limited village-level elections, saying it would be a "gradual progress."
"Without political reform, economic reform cannot succeed and the achievements we have made may be lost," Wen told a press conference, repeating comments made last year that prompted rumours of a top-level split over reform.
However, speaking after the close of the country's annual parliament session, Wen made clear that any transition to electoral politics would be made only under the "leadership of the (Communist) party."
China's ruling Communist Party is grappling with a range of problems such as inflation, rampant corruption, environmental degradation, and land grabs by property developers and local governments who evict existing residents.
"We must pursue a step-by-step approach in this process. We must believe that when the people are capable of running village affairs well, they will also be capable of ... running a township and a county," he said. "That will be a gradual process."
Wen made similar comments promoting political reform last August during a visit to the southern city of Shenzhen and in a subsequent interview with CNN.
The remarks sparked speculation of a divide between him and President Hu Jintao, who later made more tepid comments on reform.
However, political analysts have subsequently said Wen had actually intimated nothing significant in August, instead paying the usual lip service to reform and democracy favoured by the Communist Party.
The ruling communists maintain an iron grip on political power and go to great lengths to crush challenges to their rule.
China allows direct elections for village leaders across the country but the process is tightly controlled by local Communist Party leaders.
China's parliamentary chief Wu Bangguo, who is officially number two in the country's hierarchy, outranking Wen, last week ruled out any shift to multi-party democracy.
In a speech to the National People's Congress, Wu said abandoning the current Communist Party-dominated system could cause the country to "fall into the abyss of civil strife."
Jiabao rejected any comparison Monday between China and the unrest-hit Middle East.
"We face extremely daunting tasks and complex domestic and international situations," Wen told reporters in an annual press briefing after the close of the nation's parliament session.