|China will transform itself into a working democracy in just over a decade, according to one of the country's most influential reformers.
By Malcolm Moore in Shanghai
Police in Beijing try to persuade demonstrators against bad air quality to stop protesting. Photo: AP
Zhou Tianyong, an adviser to the Communist Party's Central Committee and one of its most liberal voices, told the Daily Telegraph that "by 2020, China will basically finish its political and institutional reforms".
He added: "We have a 12-year plan to establish a democratic platform. There will be public democratic involvement at all government levels."
Mr Zhou also predicted "extensive public participation in policy-making, such as drawing up new legislation".
Mr Zhou is deputy head of research at the Central Party School, the most important institution for training senior leaders. President Hu Jintao is among its former directors.
After two weeks of heightened tension between China and Taiwan because of a £3.5 billion American arms sale to the island, Mr Zhou said the transition to democracy was "essential for relations with Taiwan and a possible peaceful reunification".
His comments appear to rebuff the widespread belief that Chinese political reform had stalled after the riots in Tibet in March and a security clampdown before the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Instead, Mr Zhou said the government was determined to reform itself, but that there had been some infighting between different departments. He called for the number of ministries in Beijing to be halved to between 19 and 21 in order to form a "modern government structure".
Mr Zhou added that civil society in China would also play an important role. "There will be many more non-governmental organisations, chambers of commerce, industry associations and other social groups. Religion should also be given a wider platform to play a positive role. We should protect religious freedom," he said.
"People should not follow the traditional mindset," he added. "We should recognise that the government should serve the people and society."
But Mr Zhou did not predict the end of the one-party state, nor the demise of the Communist Party's monopoly of power.
Any transition to democracy is likely to be a slow process. China already has grassroots elections in over 660,000 villages, although these contests are often rigged. However, there are already small signs of change, with larger cities, such as Nanjing and Guangzhou, recently opening more important posts to public competition.