BEIJING - China's Communist Party chieftains faced calls for political reform and greater transparency from dissidents and top academics on Wednesday in the final countdown to a watershed congress this week.
Nearly 200 Chinese political activists signed an open letter urging the party to reverse its damning verdict on the 1989 pro-democracy protests at the 16th congress starting on Friday, when top leaders are due to retire, a human rights group said.
Two of the nation's top economists, prominent members of the establishment, also made a bold appeal for clearer rules on how and when party leaders step down as speculation mounted that party chief Jiang Zemin would retire in name only.
The appeals highlighted a key theme of the congress -- the mounting pressure on Chinese leaders to modernise a political system that analysts say lags dangerously behind the country's breakneck economic development.
On Tuesday, the party's 325-member Central Committee approved a plan to add to its constitution Jiang's "Three Represents" theory which analysts say sanctions admitting private entrepreneurs in an attempt to modernise the party.
The New York-based Human Rights in China said the activists' letter credited the party for economic reforms that have made China one of the bright spots in a gloomy world economy.
"But fairly good economic development cannot conceal increasingly visible and deep social threats," it said.
"The problem is that because of the rejection of systemic political reform, because of the rejection of democracy and rule of law, corruption is worse and worse," it said.
The letter urged the congress to rethink the verdict on the 1989 protests -- branded a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" and crushed by the military -- and compensate victims' relatives.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed when the army cleared Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4. Jiang took over the party soon afterwards.
Liu Qing, president of New York-based Human Rights in China, added the government should "address the legitimate demands for political change from its own citizens" and start by recognising freedom of expression would benefit society.
In the last few days, police have detained democracy activist Fang Jue and boosted surveillance of Chen Ziming, branded a "black hand" organiser of the 1989 protests, relatives say.
Human Rights in China said Chongqing-based Xu Wanping, a signatory to the open letter, had also been detained by police.
China also executed 46 people in just two days last week in a crackdown on crime, said London-based Amnesty International.
The academics, one of whom has advised Premier Zhu Rongji, stopped short of calling on Jiang, 76, and others by name to retire, but the carefully worded appeals came as close as is politically safe ahead of the congress.
Hu Angang, head of the Centre for China Studies run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University, said the average age of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee -- the party's top policy body -- should be cut from 70 to below 64.
That was where it stood after the 13th Party Congress in 1987, when former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and hardline party veterans left the Standing Committee, he said.
"This is the first point about the 16th congress -- the leadership must get younger, so the average age returns to this level," Hu, one of a select group summoned to advise Zhu earlier this year, told Reuters in a recent interview.
"The second point is that there must be a clear system of retirement and then people must retire, not semi-retire or move to another position," he said. "Retirement is retirement."
Jiang is expected to step down as party chief with other top leaders at the congress under an unofficial deal made at the last congress in 1997 not to pursue office after the age of 70.
But Chinese sources say he could retain his third post as head of the Central Military Commission and may form an advisory body of new retirees to maintain power after retirement.
Mao Yushi, head of the independent Unirule Institute of Economics and formerly of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences -- the government's top think tank -- backed Hu's appeal.
"The clearest sign that China is not a democratic country is that it's still very uncertain when leaders are handing over power," he said in a separate interview.
"If Chinese leaders want a peaceful transition and less trouble for themselves in the future, the best option is to do things according to existing rules," he said.
Deng launched a drive to end years of gerontocracy when he left the Standing Committee in 1987, analysts say.
Mao also called for greater freedom of speech -- as state media turned up the volume in a campaign praising Jiang and the "Three Represents" and censors warned Chinese reporters they would be jailed for leaks about the congress.
"The masses are concerned about who will be the party general secretary at the 16th party congress, but their concerns are just concerns. They have no say," said Mao.
"There is no reason to be afraid of people's opinions," he said. "Ordinary people will still choose the Communist Party. To be honest, there is no alternative."