Beijing: China`s Communist Party opened its secretive annual meeting on Friday to discuss the nation`s next five-year economic plan against the backdrop of unusually outspoken calls for political reform.
The plenum of the roughly 300-member Central Committee in Beijing, which will run until Monday, is typically cloaked in great secrecy with details released only after it ends. Even its location is not publicly announced.
Xinhua news agency said the meeting, expected to be attended by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other top leaders, opened "to discuss proposals for the nation`s next five-year development plan" from 2011 to 2015.
However, speculation has mounted that political reform could be a hot topic after Wen -- widely viewed as more liberal-minded than Hu, who is party chairman -- issued an unusually strong call for openness.
The reform debate intensified after jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo last week became China`s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, infuriating Beijing.
Analysts said the jockeying does not mean leaders will debate anything close to Western democracy, but is a sign of displeasure with what is perceived as a lack of democracy within a party seen as dominated by Hu.
Hu came to power in 2003 amid hopes that he might lead Chinese politics in a more liberal direction but those hopes have since evaporated, said Willy Lam, China politics analyst at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Hu Jintao has a lot of power and he will not want to make any fast moves (on intra-party reform). The plenum might end with some superficial promises on the issue but nothing more," he said.
Some forces also are unhappy with an economic structure seen as increasingly in thrall to powerful state-linked industries, and as suppressing competition and leading to widespread inequality, analysts say.
Wen said this month in an interview with CNN that was blacked out in China that calls for "democracy and freedom will become irresistible", echoing remarks he made in an August speech.
The calls have mounted following the Nobel Peace Prize win by Liu, a 54-year-old former university professor who was sentenced last December to 11 years in jail after co-authoring a 2008 petition calling for political reform.
On Friday, more than 100 Chinese scholars, activists and lawyers signed a letter calling for democracy and the release of Liu along with all other political prisoners.
"We are urging measures to be taken as soon as possible so that Liu Xiaobo be freed, that he be reunited with his wife Liu Xia and that he go to Oslo himself to receive the prize," the online letter`s authors wrote.
"At the same time, we call on authorities to free all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners locked up for ideological, expression or religious reasons."
The award was seen as a deep embarrassment for China, which angrily cancelled some official meetings with Norway, where the Nobel Committee is based.
On Thursday, a government spokesman called Liu a "criminal" and said the award "encourages crime".
Dissidents and rights lawyers across the nation have reported being under increased surveillance or tighter restrictions since the prize was announced.
In a separate appeal, 23 former communist officials and media leaders issued their own bluntly worded open letter to the government calling for freedom of expression to be protected.
"If the Communist Party does not reform itself, does not transform, it will lose its vitality and die a natural death," said the letter.
The five-year plan is expected to contain few surprises by enshrining an ongoing push to rely more on domestic demand and less on export markets and to broaden the social safety net to prevent instability in the poor underclass.
Analysts also will be watching for signs that Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang -- the presumed 2013 successors to Hu and Wen, respectively -- have moved closer to power.