Wen Jiabao

'People's premier' has run out of time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am

A decade is a long time in government in China, but a year is not. Premier Wen Jiabao, giving his 10th and final closing news conference at the end of the National People's Congress this week, spoke of his achievements and what he still hoped to attain in his final 12 months in office before stepping aside for the new leadership. He has done a competent job, but his wish to further his legacy as the 'people's premier' has all but hit a wall. Without political reform, the changes he seeks that are necessary to move the nation forward cannot take place - and in a system like the mainland's, that is not going to happen in so short a time.

Wen knows that well. He warned that another Cultural Revolution loomed unless political reforms were urgently implemented. The premier has made such calls in the past, although the mainland's heavily regulated media has meant that few people outside the top echelons of power have heard it. But the annual meeting with journalists is a different matter - it is the only chance each year for Chinese and the world to see and hear one of the country's most powerful men live and uncensored.

What we saw was a man who was humble, yet feisty for the causes he believes in. He admitted that his own limitations and those of the system meant that he had not been able to do his job as well as he would have liked. It is what people need to see of their leaders and what China's non-transparent government rarely allows. It is in the interests of Wen's successor that this changes.

The nation has certainly changed under Wen. With President Hu Jintao, he moved the economy from a growth-at-all-costs model to one in which the concerns of people were given priority. Investment in school tuition, medical care and pensions has been boosted. The 2,600-year-old tax on farmers' land was abolished.

But major pledges remain conspicuously unfulfilled. Domestic consumption still does not drive the mainly export-led economy, private enterprises struggle to gain a foothold and education spending still falls below the sought-after four per cent of GDP. With growth slowing due to a sluggish US recovery and the European debt crisis, far-reaching reforms are needed to help surmount the challenges ahead.

Wen can take credit for helping steer China to becoming the world's second-biggest economy. His guiding hand helped the nation weather Sars, the Sichuan earthquake and the global financial crisis. But he will leave office having failed to tackle fundamental economic and social problems facing the nation. He may like to be remembered as the 'people's premier', but a far greater legacy would be achieved by convincing others in power of the necessity of giving ordinary Chinese a role in shaping their future.