A man wearing a mask with words "Silent" holds a banner reading 'Let's chase our dreams together, go <i>Southern Weekly</i> newspaper' during a protest outside the headquarters of the newspaper in Guangzhou, Guangdong province last Monday.

A man wearing a mask with words "Silent" holds a banner reading 'Let's chase our dreams together, go Southern Weekly newspaper' during a protest outside the headquarters of the newspaper in Guangzhou, Guangdong province last Monday. Photo: AP

Shrewd leaders can reform an existing political system while maintaining stability, because they recognise how much change is needed to keep the important things constant. The longer a society is made to wait for change, however, the more dangerous the situation becomes. Miscalculation invites instability and may rouse revolutionary impulses. China's new leadership has promised to do something about corruption, but will not allow greater political freedom. Meanwhile, dissent builds.

Many political freedoms now taken for granted in democracies were achieved incrementally. Benjamin Disraeli added 1 million voters to the electoral roll in Britain through the 1867 Second Reform Act. At the time, this was a politically ambitious and risky reform but without it, agitated and activist constituencies would have demanded more radical change. Disraeli understood what was necessary in order to preserve what was important about the existing system.

Other democratic reformers implemented too much change, too quickly, to preserve useful aspects of the old regime. After years of political repression, Mikhail Gorbachev, as general secretary of the Communist Party and then president of the Soviet Union, initiated the processes of perestroika and glasnost. The institutionalisation of democratic processes and a multi-party system, as well as freedom of information and freedom of the press, were the result.

Gorbachev later asserted that without such change, the results would have been explosive and almost certainly destructive. His critics, including some still sympathetic to socialism, have argued that the USSR could have been preserved had economic freedoms been gradually increased while political control was maintained. China is often seen as an example of what could have been achieved using the latter approach. However, the Chinese Communist Party will soon have to implement political reform somehow in an entirely different economic context.

Consistent with the cyclical nature of Chinese history, inaction on political reform today will encourage dissent and hasten internal division. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the historical novel set at the end of the Han Dynasty, demonstrated that China when long divided, must unite; and long united, must divide. Long divided after dissatisfaction at the absence of reform during the 18th century, after which time popular dissent quickly grew and ended the Qing Dynasty, China again united in the middle of the 20th century under the rule of the Communist Party. After more than a century of continuous revolution, further political reform is again necessary.

There are ethical and prudential reasons for Australia to hope that appropriate political reforms are soon implemented - and stability maintained. The ethical reason is that the lives of many people would be enhanced with greater freedom of expression, information and the press, as well as other instruments we generally associate with a functioning democracy. These should be encouraged.

It is also in Australia's economic and security interests that China remain strong, unified and stable. Asia-Pacific economies including Australia's are increasingly reliant on China's growth. In terms of regional security, a strong China could contribute to a peaceful balance of regional powers. As Japan re-embraces a belligerent nationalism, an internally stable China militates against the possibility of revisiting the horrors of the previous century. Thus there are also clear prudential reasons for us to hope that necessary political reforms can lead to greater internal harmony.

What shape should such reforms take? Calling for ''democracy'' is simplistic. Democracy is not an immediate antidote for unfree societies. As Tony Judt noted in his last major work, all the nations now recognised as important democracies had constitutions, the rule of law and the separation of powers long before universal suffrage.

Modest steps taken towards the rule of law a decade ago were reversed by Hu Jintao after only a few years. The effectiveness of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference as legislative and broader decision-making instruments of the people has also been diminished. This can only foster popular discontent.

To Judt's list of reforms that precede universal suffrage, one could add freedom of information and of the press is another necessary pre-condition to democracy, as it gives individuals the opportunity at least to explore issues of governance and citizenship. Such political freedoms, however, do not appear to be within the purview of the newly anointed Chinese leadership. Indeed, they have been explicitly rejected.

In 2012, journalists working for unsanctioned media organisations were jailed, unsanctioned newspapers and magazines confiscated by the million, and recently the visa of a reputable foreign investigative journalist was not renewed. Already in 2013 there has been a public campaign against censorship of the press after the party's decision to insert an editorial into the Southern Weekly newspaper prompted its journalists to go on strike.

Further, two of the seven members of the new leadership team have in the past indicated their strong support for controlling the content and source of information in China. The legislature recently adopted a position that obliges all internet users to register their real names, in an ominous warning to bloggers. The internet and Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, are increasingly used as forums to highlight instances of official corruption. It is even more likely that dissent will now carry significant consequences.

There are indications that the new leadership will tackle the corroding influence of systematic corruption that spans all levels of the party, including the party-led military services. Action that matches rhetoric may result in appropriate and effective reforms but an internal process, however genuine, is unlikely to assuage the outrage of a growing number of dissidents and concerned ''citizens''.

Party hardliners see the dismemberment of the USSR as the end product of perestroika and glasnost. They are also familiar with de Tocqueville's assessment of the French Revolution, that the old regime made concessions when reforms posed the maximum threat to stability. If the party does not implement reforms gradually, its legitimacy will depend on perpetually achieving high economic growth. Nationalism will also be used to encourage a sense of solidarity.

The current leadership of the party must resist the cynical view that the opportunity to achieve political reform died in Tiananmen Square in 1989. There are sound political reasons to change. Opponents of the party, domestic and external, would be divided if the current leadership eased restrictions on freedom of the press and of information, for example. Some opponents of the system would accept such changes in good faith, while others would be concerned that pressure for more radical reforms would be temporarily lifted. Most importantly, such concessions would light a path towards full citizenship.

Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians.