Wen Jiabao's visit to scene of Yunnan school tragedy puzzles observers
Some question the premier's motives for making a tortuous journey to remote Yiliang county
Over his 10 years as premier, Wen Jiabao has often been Beijing's first face on the scene when disaster strikes in some remote corner of the country. Many have appreciated his knack for turning a poetic phrase and showing compassion for victims.
But Wen's nine-hour trip on Friday to the remote Yunnan province county where a large but relatively contained landslide killed 18 primary school pupils and a villager struck some experts as a political move to secure his legacy ahead of his looming retirement.
After first flying to Zhaotong city, Wen made a six-hour road trip to Yilang county's Zhenghe village, where Tiantou Primary School and three homes were smothered by a flow of rock and mud on Thursday morning, according to state media.
There, he laid flowers to honour the deceased and paid his respects to their families. The premier urged local officials to make children's safety their priority in the post-disaster reconstruction. He attended a briefing session by provincial officials before midnight and visited early morning yesterday those homeless residents affected in September's earthquake.
As deadly as the landslide was, it was a far cry from the back-to-back earthquakes that brought Wen to Yilang county early last month. That incident killed nearly 90 people and injured 800.
And observers said the high-level visit appeared disproportionate, especially because other recent disasters on a scale similar to the landslide had not attracted senior officials. Thus, some saw a political purpose to Wen's trip, which comes just weeks before he is expected to give up his seat on the Politburo's supreme Standing Committee.
"It is also entirely reasonable to say he is trying to salvage his good image, but it's useless because we have seen his tears too many times," said Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing. "In the past 63 years, he is the least powerful premier."
Zhang called the landslide "a very sad tragedy", but said there appeared to be no defining standard for what warrants a senior official's visit.
For example, no state-level official visited Baiyin city, Gansu province, last Tuesday, when 20 workers were killed in a mining accident.
Top officials also eschewed an appearance after a bus-truck collision that killed 36 in Shaanxi province in August.
Guangzhou-based historian Yuan Weishi said that he found Wen's appearance puzzling, despite the premier's emphasis on accountability and frequent presence on the frontlines of disasters.
"I also feel it's a bit strange," Yuan said. "It certainly was a sad incident but was it really necessary to travel all that way to the disaster zone when he could have just given instructions to local officials over the phone?"
Qiao Mu, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said it was hard to gauge Wen's true intentions, as his economic policies have often contradicted the concern he shows for the underprivileged in public appearances.
"I think this visit was simply a personal choice and it's possible he is using that to further consolidate his positive legacy in the hearts of public," Qiao said.