“Grandpa Wen,” China’s state media call him. Or “The Premier of the People.” To many ordinary Chinese, China’s 70-year-old Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) is a series of endearing images — a grey-haired, bespectacled man playing basketball with primary-school children or bowing deeply to the families of natural-disaster victims.
A report in Friday’s New York Times gave Wen’s populist image a makeover. The paper found Wen’s family has accumulated more than US$2.7 billion in assets, much of it from investments in companies that were directly influenced by Wen’s position.
Analysts say Wen’s role as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) friendliest face — a counterpoint to the stodgy, unsmiling bureaucrats that fill its ranks — has made the disclosure of his family’s wealth a deep embarrassment to the leadership.
“Someone like Wen is a very good focal point for the party’s overall narrative — that it’s the only vehicle that can maintain the prosperity that the Chinese people have achieved over the last 15 or 20 years,” said Rana Mitter, an expert on Chinese politics at Oxford University.
Wen has made much of his humble origins — that he grew up in poverty in Tianjin City before getting a postgraduate geology degree in Beijing. His mother, a teacher, raised him amid the turmoil of the Sino-Japanese war.
“The untold suffering in the days of old China left an indelible imprint on my tender mind,” he told the National People’s Congress in 2003.
In his 42-year political career, Wen has gained the reputation of an intellectual. He regularly opens speeches with lines from ancient Chinese poets and scholars, expounding on the virtues of perseverance and commitment to duty.
While visiting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 2006, he improvised a poem: “Fifty years of journey sharing weal and woe / Brings Chinese and African hearts closer and ever so,” he said, according to the Web site of China’s embassy in South Africa.
He has long been an ambiguous figure for China-watchers. Some say he could be a crusader for reform; others call him a figurehead. He has expressed support for anti-corruption legislation in speeches around the world. He visited Sichuan after a 2008 earthquake thought to have killed 90,000 people and has met migrant workers during labor unrest.
When a high-speed-train crash in the coastal city Wenzhou in June last year became a focal point for popular discontent with the speed of China’s development, Wen was quickly on the scene.
“I believe related departments will seriously learn a lesson from this incident,” he said at a press conference after inspecting the crash site. “If there is any corruption exposed in the investigation, we will handle it according to the law and the consequences will be severe.”
Yet if Wen has enacted any real political reform, none of it is obvious. After his visit to the earthquake zone, the government harshly cracked down on activists demanding a list of the dead. His goal of improving migrant worker rights has gone largely unrealized. Corruption in China is still endemic, the country’s wealth gap yawning, its thuggish state security apparatus stronger than ever.
Analysts usually maintain one of two views on Wen, according to Mitter.
“One is that he’s been genuinely trying to push for reform within the party, but has been isolated and not been allowed to succeed because of vested interests,” he said. “The other is that this is essentially a piece of self-aggrandizement by Wen.”
Analysts debate the importance of a photograph showing Wen standing alongside then premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) while visiting Tiananmen Square student protestors in 1989. While some say that Wen’s proximity to Zhao — a staunch reformer who was placed under house arrest after the protests — shows his sympathy for the students’ cause, others say it betrays nothing but a strong survival instinct, an impressive ability to further his career despite a dangerous political association.
Wen has scored at least one big victory in his time as premier: He is widely considered instrumental in sacking the Chongqing CCP chief Bo Xilai (薄熙來) — a charismatic leader with a flair for Mao-era grandiosity — triggering the party’s most dramatic political upheaval in decades.
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