'Grandpa' Wen conspicuous by his absence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am

President Hu Jintao returned yesterday to the quake zone where he delivered an emotional speech almost a year ago, this time presiding over a sombre memorial service.

Vice-Premiers Li Keqiang and Hui Liangyu, the two deputy directors of a team of high-ranking officials who helped put together rescue and relief missions in the aftermath of the Sichuan tremor, also revisited the epicentre.

But the first anniversary of China's worst natural disaster in three decades passed without arguably its most recognised public face - Premier Wen Jiabao.

Mr Wen, the director of the central government's rescue and relief team, flew to the quake zone two hours after the tremor. He worked around the clock in Sichuan for five days, visiting the hardest-hit areas, comforting survivors and boosting the morale of exhausted rescue workers. Footage of the premier, 67, trekking through the rubble, bowing to the bodies of quake victims and shouting encouragement in tears helped to ease the panic and grief of the nation in the wake of the disaster.

But Mr Wen, affectionately called 'grandpa' by earthquake survivors, was not seen at the official memorial service held in the epicentre town of Yingxiu yesterday. Nor did he attend any similar ceremonies in Beijing. His last public appearance was on Monday, after presiding over a State Council meeting on fighting swine flu.

'No doubt Mr Wen was an icon of government efforts to heal the trauma incurred by the earthquake, but for now officialdom apparently want to stress that it was the whole administration and party, rather than an individual political star, that contributed to the rehabilitation of Sichuan,' said Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a Hong Kong-based political commentator who was in Sichuan yesterday to monitor activities.

Mr Lau said that although the central government had been making headway in helping the quake-hit zone recover in economic terms, discontent among some of the survivors was palpable.

'Those parents who blamed their kids' deaths on perceived substandard school buildings feel strongly about authorities' inability to do them justice,' he said. 'Many of them have collected the evidence and keep it with them, vowing to wait till the day of reckoning. If not properly appeased, they will cause big trouble to social stability, paramount on the party's concern list.'

And in any such case of unrest, the popular Mr Wen could prove to be a handy soother to work in the party's favour with all the hearts he has won.