18th Party Congress

Counting down to his retirement, Wen seeks to defend his legacy

The premier may be 70 and about to step down, but with a game of basketball he tries to show he'll always be a man of the people

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 7:14am

Who is the most athletic Chinese politician of our time?

Political pundits, who often struggle to assess party officials' prowess in the political arena, appear to have reached consensus that Premier Wen Jiabao could easily best any of his contemporaries on the field of play.

Just months away from his expected retirement, the 70-year-old Wen made headlines yesterday after showing off his basketball skills in a game with former national team players during the "golden week" holiday.

The state-run China Sports Daily splashed news of the spry Wen's unusual athleticism and good sportsmanship on its front page, along with a photo of the premier - dressed in shorts and high-top trainers - attempting a lay-up.

Analysts saw the October 3 event, which comes just weeks before Wen and other top party leaders are expected to hand most top party offices to a new generation, as an attempt by Wen to polish his populist image and cement his legacy.

While Wen has received praise for his efforts to appear approachable and progressive, analysts say his mixed record on economic issues and failure to deliver on political reform has undermined his credibility.

But most agree Wen can do little to change public perceptions before he relinquishes his Politburo Standing Committee post after the Communist Party's National Congress next month and retires as premier in March. "He at least makes a lot of effort to display his regular side and reach out to the people, which makes him stand out from other incumbent state leaders," said Professor Zhu Lijia , of the Chinese Academy of Governance.

"Wen clearly knows what the public wish to see the most from government officials: at the least, they should be affable," Zhu said. The premier, who has become known for his early morning jogs while overseas, describes himself as a baseball and basketball enthusiast.

He hit a diplomatic home run during his April 2007 "ice-melting trip" to Japan, during which he donned a baseball jersey and practised pitching and batting with university students in Kyoto. Li Datong , a Beijing-based political analyst, said Wen began to play basketball when he was in middle school, more than 50 years ago.

He has shrewdly used that interest to show his "everyman" side and help bring him closer to the people, whether he was meeting children or migrant workers, analysts said.

Some internet commenters have jokingly contrasted Wen's apparent fitness with president-to-be Xi Jinping .

Xi, 59, mysteriously disappeared from public view for two weeks last month amid reports that he had hurt his back after slipping at a swimming pool.