Public calls for reform have intensified during the countdown to the annual "two sessions" of the country's top legislature and top political advisory group, during which a new central government will be formed.
However, observers are taking a cautious view of progress in reforms, noting that drastic political changes are not likely to be introduced at the "two sessions" due to growing conflicts in the interests of different social groups as well as vested interests of the privileged. They instead speculate that the reforms would mainly focus on fine-tuning the administrative system.
The annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) will kick off in Beijing on Sunday, and the meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC) is scheduled to open on Tuesday.
Just days ahead of the "two sessions," more than 100 scholars, lawyers and media workers, including well-known economist Mao Yushi and real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, co-signed an open letter to the Standing Committee of the NPC, calling for immediate ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The open letter, which was released on February 26, was seen as another call by liberal intellectuals for the country to push forward political reforms, two months after they published a bold letter asking for democracy and the rule of law.
China signed the ICCPR in 1998, but has not ratified the treaty.
Pu Zhiqiang, a renowned lawyer and signatory to the open letter, told the Global Times that by releasing the letter ahead of the NPC session, they are seeking to make the ratification of the treaty an agenda for the top legislature. "I think the conditions are ripe to ratify it," said Pu.
However, the lawyer said he doesn't hold much hope for authorities to push forward political reforms at the "two sessions."
Wang Yukai, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance, said in an opinion piece published earlier this week in the Economic Information paper that reforms have entered a "deep-water zone" and are facing an uphill battle.
He said the distribution of interests has been twisted over the past years, creating major impediments for authorities to steer a path for political reforms.
While social anger over inequality has been a force driving the need for political reforms, Wang said that growing social anger and expression of emotions have actually increased obstacles to reforms and narrowed the room for carrying them out.
Chi Fulin, director of the Haikou-based China Institute for Reform and Development and CPPCC member, told the Global Times Friday that the forming of diversified social groups over the past three decades, namely the low-income, middle-class, wealthy and those who hold vested interests, has made it more difficult to forge a consensus on the path of reforms.
Those who hold vested interests are mostly associated with power in the country, making them strong opponents to change, said Chi.
With chances for political reforms looking bleak, more hopes have been placed on reforms of the administrative system.
During its second plenary session that concluded on Thursday, the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China passed a plan on institutional restructuring and the functional transformation of the State Council, suggesting the State Council submit it at the NPC session.
The government will reportedly further streamline government agencies and form "super ministries" under the State Council. The move is expected to cut red tape and merge agencies that have overlapping functions.
It has been reported that the problem-ridden Ministry of Railways (MOR) will be merged into the Ministry of Transport, and that the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the General Administration of Press and Publication will also merge into one agency.
In 2008, agencies under the State Council were cut to 27 from 28, and the industrial and transport authorities saw their power boosted.
For this year's reform, most observers said there will be fine-tuning of the agencies instead of drastic cuts.
Xu Yaotong, a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Governance, told Xinhua that the number of agencies will be scaled back to 23 or 24 from the current 27.
Chi echoed the view that there will be no radical streamlining, noting that the departments involved in the reform would mainly be those blighted by deep-rooted problems, such as the MOR.
"However, in contrast with previous reforms which only took place at a time of government transition, I expect the new central government will keep pushing forward the process of streamlining step by step in the next five years," said Chi.