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Wen all is said and done

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am

All eyes were on Premier Wen Jiabao's last post-NPC press conference on Wednesday. But Wen, 70 in September and a year from retirement after nine years in the job, gave a much less energetic performance than usual in his three-hour press conference at the conclusion of the annual National People's Congress session.

Wen adopted a humble, resigned approach. He asked that after he died people forget about him and the good he achieved, and repeated vague calls for political reform.

Even though he has continued to exhibit a photographic memory, great analytical skills, an impressive grasp of detail and a passion for poetry and aphoristic quotes, his political lustre has dimmed with each passing year.

In a sign that high office has taken its toll, Wen spoke more slowly this year, with frequent, long pauses. While it took him two hours to address 15 questions at his first press conference nine years ago, he spent three full hours answering the same number of questions this year.

It was quite a contrast to his carefully crafted image as an energetic and passionate leader, something that brought him closer to the people in his early years in office.

'[Wen] is the human face of the current administration, frequently appearing on television comforting ordinary people who have suffered some natural or man-made disaster,' said Professor Susan Shirk, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia who now teaches at the University of California, San Diego. 'He is the one leader of his generation who has sought to build popular support for the Communist Party [and for himself] by becoming a media personality.'

The premier's annual press conference, broadcast live on television, radio and the internet, has long been one of the most watched events of the year on the mainland.

The reason is simple: it is the only time mainlanders and the international media can watch a top Chinese leader up close and personal.

Although the annual ritual of the premier facing a grilling from a dozen or so selected mainland and overseas reporters has been criticised for being contrived and prone to churning out political cliches, it still sheds rare light on the inner workings of the mainland's murky governance and the personality of the premier.

Unlike his predecessor Zhu Rongji, who was known for his brashness, dry wit and spontaneity, Wen has positioned himself as a softly-spoken, affable leader who champions the interests of ordinary people and advocates political reforms.

He has also constantly displayed a certain amount of unease in the media spotlight.

'Wen is different from Zhu because he has a less natural public manner and lacks the immense appeal of Zhu,' said Dr Kerry Brown, a senior fellow with London-based Chatham House.

Wen gave a candid account of his early years and his political rise at his debut press conference as premier in 2003. He spoke of war and suffering during his childhood, his 25 years as a geologist and his 18 years working in China's inner-circles of power, including eight as director of the general office of the Communist Party's Central Committee, serving as top aide to three party bosses, from Zhao Ziyang to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao .

Describing himself as an ordinary man from a rural background, he said he had a mild temper but strong beliefs, independent thoughts and a willingness to bear responsibility.

'I know the hardships of life and the arduousness in building a nation,' Wen said. 'But I have subscribed to a faith: a man, a people as well as a nation can rise to greatness as long as they do not shrink from danger, from hardship and push their way to the top.'

While the flamboyant, combative Zhu left many memorable quotes, including one describing his political future as 'a field of landmines or an abyss', Wen has his own secret weapon to impress the public - poetry.

Wen has frequently used poetry, prose and the words of historical figures both at home and abroad to reinforce his messages and set himself apart from most high-ranking mainland bureaucrats, including Hu, who are addicted to propaganda slogans.

Speaking of his political motto this year, Wen cited a poem he used twice before, in 2003 and 2008, by Lin Zexu - a Qing dynasty official who confiscated and burned opium, triggering war with Britain in 1840: 'One should uphold his country's interest with his life, he should not do things just to pursue his personal gains and he should not evade responsibilities for fear of personal loss.'

Professor Yu Guoming, dean of the school of journalism at Renmin University in Beijing, said that while Wen was certainly not the only mainland leader who loved quoting the classics, he did so with genuine passion, clear political motives and shrewd skills.

'Wen apparently has certain traits of traditional Chinese intellectuals who have high political aspirations and want to leave a name in history, even though it remains too difficult to tell to what extent his public image is real,' Yu said.

A striking feature of Wen's frequent use of poetry is his preference for sad poems depicting the hardships of often tragic heroes. 'Clearly, it is his way of portraying his own predicament in pushing his policy agenda and his complicated feelings,' Yu said.

Brown said Wen, one of the last of the technocrats, was the only serving leader 'with at least a little ability to try to speak in a more accessible tone', in order to attract support and interest.

He is also the figure among the nine-strong Politburo Standing Committee who has to face media questions each year.

But having been unable to follow through on many of his promises, Wen's lacklustre performance in office has disappointed many and inevitably undermined his populist credibility.

While he admitted his 'incompetent abilities' four days ago and a glaring failure to tackle 'the problems that most concern people - medical care, education, housing and production safety' at his 2006 press conference, the image-conscious premier is more often seen fending off criticism, attributing failures to unspecific 'institutional and other factors'.

'I've never committed intentional error in my work because of dereliction of duty,' Wen said in his opening remarks on Wednesday.

Yu said Wen 'knows how he can tactfully be politically correct at all times while being seen as a liberal, open-minded leader siding with the majority of the public'.

Yu and other analysts also observed that Wen knows how to skirt really sensitive issues such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and is keen to put a positive spin on his legacy.

When he was grilled twice, in 2003 and 2004, about reassessing the bloody crackdown Wen simply toed the party line and tried to justify Beijing's handling of the student-led protests as necessary for upholding 'the unity within the party and social and political stability'.

When a foreign reporter surprisingly added a question about a new book on former party chief Zhao Ziyang in 2007, Wen gave a vague answer in which he conspicuously distanced himself from his purged former boss, whose fate remains a taboo to this day.

The Tiananmen crackdown, arguably the most contentious of the so-called T-questions - which also include Tibet and Taiwan - has disappeared from the annual list of 11 to 15 questions over the past eight years, and the question about Zhao and Wen's one-sentence response to it were deleted from official transcripts of the 2007 news conference.

Compared to his earlier press conferences, fewer reporters have bothered to raise their hands in recent years because it has become increasingly clear that those who are lucky enough to quiz the premier have been carefully screened, with their questions vetted beforehand.

'Wen's annual press conference has been turned into a non-event in recent years,' said political commentator Li Datong, a former editor at the China Youth Daily. 'With almost all the sensitive and tough questions being screened, they can rest assured that Wen will have an easy time and talk with ease and confidence, conveying his prepared messages.'

It is an open secret that news outlets, especially those from overseas, are required to follow scripted questions approved by mainland authorities at the press conference, which is essentially a creature of the mainland's censorship mentality.

If they fail to comply they risk being denied opportunities to pose questions to the premier in the future, according to political and media analysts. As a result, overseas reporters appear to have lost interest in posing tough questions on a whole host of sensitive issues, from Tibet to the crackdown on human right lawyers and dissidents and the number of students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Wen is also keenly aware of Zhu's past mistakes, such as his blunder on the eve of Taiwan's presidential election in 2000, when his harsh, provocative comments apparently helped secure victory for the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian. In a sharp shift, Wen has often appealed emotionally for closer cross-strait ties. 'I would still like to go to Taiwan. If I can no longer walk, I wouldn't mind crawling,' he said in 2009.

Disappointingly, despite widespread environmental degradation, reporters, especially from state media, have seldom raised pollution issues at the press conference.

Wen has commented on mounting pollution concerns only once, in 2006, admitting that environmental targets topped his list of major policy goals that he had failed to achieve.

That question came from a Taiwanese reporter, who went to great lengths to attract Wen's attention. Even Wen joked about the fact that officials took no chances in policing the live telecast, praising the reporter for his 'tremendous courage'.

Not surprisingly, there have been no similar 'hiccups' since.

Wen addresses questions about Hong Kong and Macau each year and last year fondly remembered his visit to Hong Kong in 2003, shortly before 500,000 Hongkongers took to the streets calling for the removal of chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Wen has also created an image for himself as a champion of political reform, something he has mentioned every year since 2003. Although he seldom elaborates on what he means by reform, his frequent mention of it has raised eyebrows.

'[Wen] has also used the media, including the international media, to mobilise support for his own political ideas, which appear to be more liberal than those of his colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee,' Shirk said. His critics often ridicule these ideas - which include restraining unbridled government power and promoting public scrutiny and greater openness - as meaningless because they have seldom, if ever, been put into practice.

Wen once again insisted that he had 'never pursued personal gains in 45 years of service to the nation'.

But Brown said: 'Wen's clean image [does not] sit easily with the rumours swirling around about the business interests of his wife and family. This must compromise him.'

Brown also said that Wen's political pragmatism had ensured his political survival but was at odds with claims that he was a reformist.

'Wen's claim to his position was support from Zhu Rongji and his evident skill as a political insider able to work for different political masters and avoid falling foul of the changes in the currents of the central leadership,' he said. 'For all his talk of political reform, at the end of the day the troubling question is what has he actually done to proceed with this - and the answer there is very little.'

Dai Qing, a writer and veteran journalist, also questioned Wen's track record as premier. 'He has made so many beautiful promises. How come he cannot at least make one of them happen?'

Poetry and politics - memorable Wen lines at the NPC

2003

Hong Kong is a bright pearl of the motherland. It is our firm and unswerving objective to maintain the long-term stability and prosperity there. It is the responsibility and an unshakeable duty of the central government.

2004

With regard to financial reform, China is conducting a desperate fight, which is a kind of practice that we cannot afford to lose.

2007

Tackling issues about people's well-being must, after all, enable people to live happily. What is happiness? Let me quote a line from Ai Qing, a Chinese poet, 'Go and ask the thawing land, go and ask the thawing river'.

2007

While the waters can bear the boat, they can also sink it.

2009

I would still like to go to Taiwan. If I can no longer walk, I wouldn't mind crawling.

2011

I think I should continue to do my job diligently on this position as devoted as a soldier. I always have the interest of the country in my mind and I pursue no personal gains. I will continue to perform my duties conscientiously.

2012

I sincerely hope that ... the good things I did for people will be forgotten ... when I am laid to my eternal rest.

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