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Reform hint comes with Tiananmen immolation

Beijing, Oct. 1 (Reuters): A laid-off worker set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square today, and President Hu Jintao pledged to expand public participation in politics, as China’s week-long National Day holiday got under way.

Hu urged “efforts to expand citizens’ orderly participation in political affairs and guarantee people’s rights to carry out democratic election, decision making, management and supervision according to law”, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have cultivated “men of the people” images since taking up the reins of power over the past year.

In Beijing, hundreds of thousands of people converged on the square, China’s political epicentre, to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the People’s Republic. They included former president Jiang Zemin, whose public appearances are now rare.

A witness saw Jiang, Hu’s predecessor as Communist Party chief and state president, emerge from a limousine in the north of the square, near the Tiananmen gate where a huge portrait of Mao Zedong hangs.

Jiang’s last known public appearance there was in July 2001 after China won its bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics. Although his exit from the main stage capped China’s first peaceful political transition, Jiang retains power as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the head of the armed forces.

It was unclear what motivated 49-year-old Yang Peiquan to set himself on fire in the morning, but the act highlighted the socio-economic disparities that have ballooned with China’s economic boom and which the government has vowed to tackle.

Wen addressed the rich-poor divide in general terms last night in a National Day banquet speech at the Great Hall of the People but gave little hint of new reforms. The week-long holiday is the first so-called “Golden Week” extended break since the government cut the International Labour Day vacation in May because of Sars. It hopes tourist revenues and consumer spending will give a boost to the economy. “Chinese consumers’ long-restrained consumer spending, due to the cancellation of the May Day holiday this year under the shadow of Sars, will be released,” Xinhua said.

It quoted “insiders” as saying tourism revenues from the break were likely to exceed the 25.7 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) earned during the Lunar New Year festival early in February.

Zhen Songqin, 31, from coastal Jiangsu province who does domestic work in Shanghai, said: “It’s particularly nice to have this holiday time given that the government cancelled our May holiday. I’m going out with my friends shopping, to restaurants and I’m going to play a lot of mah-jong,” she said.

But Yang’s bid to set himself on fire struck a different tone. Yang, from Gong’an county in the central province of Hubei, was taken to hospital with minor injuries, Xinhua said.

It was the second reported self-immolation bid in less than three weeks in the mammoth public space, now festooned with fountains, sculptures and a shrub replica of the Great Wall. Police declined to comment.

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