A survivor of the Tiananmen purge, China’s outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has managed to maintain his reputation throughout a 10-year term as arguably the most popular of the ruling communist elite, a man of the people, and a political reformer
Chinese communist officials do not criticize a colleague in public. It is part of protocol to do so only in private so as not to lose face. Not for the sake of the criticized colleague, but for the party’s sake.
But in March this year, during his last annual news conference as Prime Minister, Wen broke protocol. Mincing no words, he rebuked Bo Xilai (still an ambitious Chongqing mayor and communist party chief then), in front of local and foreign media. The public rebuke was the beginning of Bo’s downfall barely a month later.
Prior to the rebuke, Bo had made lots of noise on the streets of Chongqing. At his command, the entire city sang ‘red songs’ in unison, praising the Communist Party’s monumental achievements. Some 13 million cellphone users were also said to have received from Bo a number of ‘red text messages,’ which included quotes from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. The Xinhua News Agency reported one such message: “I like how Chairman Mao puts it: The world is ours, we will all have to work together.”
For Premier Wen, however, what was happening in Chongqing was a grim reminder of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. If left unchecked, it would serve as a major stumbling block to Deng Xiaoping’s vision of an economically progressive new China. Worse, it could even lead to the shedding of Chinese blood.
Hence, the sharp public rebuke in the name of what the state-run media called China’s “socialist democracy.”
When he was interviewed by CNN in October 2010, Wen said, “The wish and will of the people are not stoppable. Those who go along with the trend will thrive, and those who go against the trend will fail.”
To this he added Deng’s famous barb against the enemies of liberation: “Without reform, there is only the road to perdition.”
This seems to be a far cry from what Wen said during his first term in the office, that “the socialist system will continue in China for the next 100 years.”
What does Wen really think?
Wen is said to be a protégé of Chinese reformers Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Zhao was the Chinese communist party chief ousted from his post for opposing the decision of colleagues to massacre the hunger- striking student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Wen’s association with Zhao almost cost him his political career. Wen was with Zhao when the latter attempted to persuade student activists to leave Tiananmen Square to avoid bloodshed. Wen was tagged by communist officials as “the Zhao Ziyang underling.”
But Wen was able to win back the trust of Zhao’s successor Jiang Zemin, as well as party elders Deng and Yang Shangkun, among others. Yang even vouched for his loyalty when then Premier Li Peng wanted to sack Wen. He survived and, in due course, gained a flourishing career in the party.
In 1998, he became vice premier during Jiang’s tenure and, since 2003, the party has elected him Premier—until his exit in March 2013.
Face of China
Wen occupies the top slot for advancing China’s economic interests and promoting its foreign policy positions in the international arena. This has earned him the moniker ‘face of China.’
Since he assumed premiership in 2003, he has spent a considerable part of the last decade in almost every part of the world, keeping an eye on resource acquisitions and cutting trade deals for his country. Wen knows such deals are crucial for China to sustain its impressive economic performance of the past 30 years—which has, recently, already slowed down.
Wen prefers to close trade deals with countries largely ignored by big economic powers like the G7. He has made it his business to develop trade relations with key energy and commodity producers in Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa, while improving China’s business interests in North America and Europe.
As China’s chief foreign policy promoter, Wen has made himself increasingly visible in global affairs as China continues to expand its economic might, attracting international media attention. His visit to North Korea in late 2009, for instance, where he was greeted at the airport by ailing North Korean President Kim Jong-Il (who rarely ever met foreign dignitaries), was interpreted by foreign media as a show of solidarity between the two communist countries.
A month later, when he met European Union leaders at a China- EU conference, he made it clear that China is not inclined to succumb to international pressure by allowing the Chinese yuan to float or to reexamine its foreign exchange policies.
“Some countries are, on the one hand, pressuring China to appreciate its currency,” Wen said from Nanjing, “while, on the other hand, they are practicing trade protectionism against China in many different forms.”
Wen takes a populist approach, portraying himself as a man of the people, many of whom have started calling him Grandpa Wen.
He seems comfortable mingling with ordinary Chinese citizens. He is constantly on the move, often caught by the press in casual clothes, comforting the poor in remote places, and is the first among government officials to show up during natural disasters.
But Chinese dissidents are still critical. Democracy activist and writer Yu Jie, for instance, calls Wen’s parade of appearances before media as insincere and empty.
“There is only one objective for all that Wen Jiabao has done since he took the reins, and it is to ‘act.’ He knows that this old car—the Chinese Communist Party—is going to fall apart,” snipes Yu in his book China’s Best Actor.
“He himself is not a driver with the charisma and ability to stop the car or switch path. As a result, all he can do is to be like a puppet, acting as long as he can,” writes Yu.
For Bao Tong, one of China’s foremost analysts who has been placed under house arrest since he aired his opposition to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Premier Wen’s portrayal of himself as a political reformist deserves a failing grade.
In his book titled A Collection of Essays, which contains over a hundred articles on the past decade of China’s social and political life, Bao gives Wen a score of 59 out of 100.
“He would have received a passing grade if he earned another point,” Bao says. According to him, Wen’s impromptu comments on political reform “are largely a repetition of what late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said before.
He betrayed all of us.”
Print ed: 11/12