BEIJING -- As the Communist Party's 18th Congress approached, Li Weidong, a scholar of politics, made plans to observe a historic leadership battle in one of the world's great nations.
Instead of staying in Beijing to monitor China's once-a-decade transfer of power, Mr. Li boarded a plane.
"I'm going to the United States to study the elections," Mr. Li said in a telephone interview during a stopover in Paris. After witnessing the American presidential election on Tuesday, Mr. Li went on the radio for another interview. "I still think China's politics remain prehistoric," he said. "I often joke that the Chinese civilization is the last prehistoric civilization left in the world."
With China at a critical juncture, there is a rising chorus within the elite expressing doubt that the 91-year-old Communist Party's authoritarian system can deal with the stresses bearing down on the nation and its 1.3 billion people. Policies introduced after 1978 by Deng Xiaoping lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and transformed the country into the world's second-largest economy. But the way party leaders have managed decades of growth has created towering problems that critics say can no longer be avoided.
Many of those critics have benefited from China's stunning economic gains, and their ranks include billionaires, intellectuals and children of the party's revolutionary founders. But they say the party's agenda, as it stands today, is not visionary enough to set China on the path to stability. What is needed, they say, is a comprehensive strategy to gradually extricate the Communist Party, which has more than 80 million members, from its heavy-handed control of the economy, the courts, the news media, the military, educational institutions, civic life and just the plain day-to-day affairs of citizens.
Only then, the critics argue, can the government start to address the array of issues facing China, including rampant corruption, environmental degradation, and an aging population whose demographics have been skewed because of the one-child policy.
"In order to build a real market economy, we have to have real political reform," said Yang Jisheng, a veteran journalist and a leading historian of the Mao era. "In the next years, we should have a constitutional democracy plus a market economy."
For now, however, party leaders have given no indication that they intend to curb their role in government in a meaningful way.
"We will never copy a Western political system," Hu Jintao, the departing party chief, said in a speech on Thursday opening the weeklong congress.
The party's public agenda, which Mr. Hu described in detail in his 100-minute address, was laid out in a 64-page report that is in part intended to highlight priorities for the new leaders, who will be announced later this month. Much of the document had retrograde language that emphasized ideology stretching back to Mao and had little in the way of bold or creative thinking, said Qian Gang, the director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
Most telling, there was no language signaling that the incoming Politburo Standing Committee, the group that rules China by consensus, would support major changes in the political system, whose perversions many now say are driving the nation toward crisis.
While Chinese who are critical of the current system generally do not expect a wholesale adoption of a Western model, they do favor at least an openness to bolder experimentation.
"To break one-party rule right now is probably not realistic, but we can have factions within the party made public and legalized, so they can campaign against each other," said Mr. Yang, who added that there was no other way at the moment to ensure political accountability.
Only in the last few years has the idea of liberalizing the political system gained currency, and urgency, among a broad cross-section of elites. Before that, as the West foundered at the onset of the global financial crisis, many here pointed to the triumph of a "China model" or "Beijing consensus" -- a mix of authoritarian politics, a command economy and quasi-market policies.
But the way in which China weathered the crisis -- with the injection of $588 billion of stimulus money into the economy and an explosion of lending from state banks -- led to a spate of large infrastructure projects that may never justify their cost. As a result, many economists now say that China's investment-driven, export-oriented economic model is unsustainable and needs to shift toward greater reliance on Chinese consumers.
Constant lip-service is paid to that goal, and on Saturday, Zhang Ping, a senior official, reiterated that stance. But it will not be easy for the new leaders to carry it out. At the root of the current economic model is the political system, in which party officials and state-owned enterprises work closely together, reaping enormous profits from the party's control of the economy. Under Mr. Hu's decade-long tenure, these relationships and the dominance of state enterprises have only strengthened.
"What happens in this kind of economy is that wealth concentrates where power is," said Mr. Yang, the journalist.
The 400 or so incoming members of the party's Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, as well as their friends and families, have close ties to the most powerful of China's 145,000 state-owned enterprises. The growing presence of princelings -- the children of notable Communist officials -- in the party, the government and corporations could mean an even more closely meshed web of nepotism. It is a system that Xi Jinping, anointed to be the next party chief and president and himself a member of the "red nobility," would find hard to unravel, even if he wanted to.
"There are people who run state-owned enterprises who are Xi Jinping's friends, relatives and old classmates," said Zhang Lifan, a historian. "This group is part of his political energy and support base. If Xi Jinping is willing to reform, he must sacrifice the interests of these people for the long-term good."
The rules have become so unbalanced against private entrepreneurs that even some who have benefited handsomely from China's growth are denouncing the system. One is Sun Dawu, a party member and the millionaire founder of a rural food conglomerate. He was handed a suspended three-year prison sentence in 2003 for trying to raise capital from local residents. Mr. Sun stayed quiet after his trial, but is now openly critical again.
"The finance system is very corrupt," he said in a telephone interview. "The country should allow private banks to do financing, especially for peasants and the rural population."
China's systemic problems are most evident in the countryside. Land seizures by officials looking to sell property to developers are the most common cause of the growing number of protests.
"Land, finances, medical care and education resources are too concentrated," Mr. Sun said. "The majority of the nation's resources are concentrated on welfare for party members and government workers."
The growth-at-all-costs development model has also led to widespread environmental destruction and a surge of protests against industrial projects from middle-class urban residents. At a news conference on Thursday, the opening day of the party congress, Yi Gang, deputy governor of China's central bank, acknowledged the problem: "After 30 years of development, there is no big difference from developed countries in what we eat and wear," he said. "Where we lag behind is in the air and the water."
But the only way to really address endemic problems like these, critics say, is to create a political system, with checks and balances, that is designed to benefit ordinary Chinese rather than officials and their cronies, and is able to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society.
"It is still possible for China to get on the right track while staying stable," said Mr. Li, the scholar who observed the American vote. "It is also possible, however, for the party to miss the opportunity and devolve into chaos."
Mia Li contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.