Wen Jiabao

Premier Wen shows China's best face to the world

The image projected by Premier Wen Jiabao on his many travels abroad, analysts say, fits in with China's attempts to project its soft power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 8:40am

When Premier Wen Jiabao went overseas he would often seize the chance to show the personable side of the Chinese leadership to overseas audiences, who sometimes perceive it as stern and rigid.

In addition to serious business talks and deals, Wen would chat with ordinary citizens and on some occasions delivered remarks considered sensitive that were downplayed by the state media at home.

In contrast to the serious, stiff look of most Chinese leaders, who appear reluctant to express their personal feelings, Wen, who will step down in March, commonly referred to Chinese idioms and poems, allowing others to get a glimpse of what he thinks.

In a meeting with the Chinese community in Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday - on what was probably his last overseas trip, Wen recited parts of Li Sao ("Words of Departure"), a poem by Qu Yuan , to say that he is a clean leader - an indirect response to allegations that his family had accumulated huge wealth during his time as premier.

The poem reads" "My heart will always belong to my noble hopes, and for this I would have no regrets even if I died nine times over. For righteousness without guilt I would die, Thus with what ancient sages taught I would comply."

Observers say Wen's style is based on his humble upbringing but is also meticulously planned to reinforce his down-to-earth "grandpa" image at home and help China promote its soft power abroad. But the reactions to the approach have been mixed. Some have ridiculed Wen as "China's best actor" while others have said he shows that not all Chinese officials are hardliners.

Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Wen's approach was a concerted effort to deliver an image that many overseas people "are happy with China" - at a time when Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive.

One notable example was when Wen played baseball with students at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto in 2007, on trip aimed at getting Sino-Japanese ties back on track after a visit to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine the previous year by then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. In that game, Wen wore a baseball jersey with the number 35, symbolising the anniversary of the countries' diplomatic ties. Three years later, Wen was seen jogging in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. On another trip to Tokyo last year, he even asked popular Japanese boy band SMAP to sing a song to him.

Visiting Indonesia last year, Wen launched into a version of a traditional Moluccan folk song, "Ayo Mama" (Let's Go Mama).

When he visited the birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-on-Avon last year, Wen described Shakespeare as "the greatest writer of all time".

Professor Pang Zhongying , an international relations specialist at Renmin University, said Wen's approach indicated that Beijing was attaching more importance to how China was perceived overseas.

"China stresses public diplomacy and the participation of grass-roots people in foreign affairs. Mingling with the general public overseas is an attempt to boost China's image abroad," Pang said.

Other than portraying his personable side, Wen also uses his trips to meet members of the Hong Kong and overseas media, often announcing major policies.

During the trip to Indonesia, Wen confirmed to Hong Kong media that Beijing was setting up yuan settlement and clearing centres with other countries.

He has also raised eyebrows with his calls for political reform. In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria in October 2010, Wen said he would advance the restructuring of China's political system to the full extent of his capabilities. "I will not fall despite the strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield until the last day of my life," Wen said in the interview - a remark that was censored on the mainland. He made similar call on his Indonesia trip. And in Britain and Germany last year, when China was criticised for arresting but later releasing outspoken artist Ai Weiwei , Wen pledged that China would uphold democracy.

"Without democracy, there is no socialism. Without freedom, there is no real democracy," Wen told the Royal Society in London.

Observers said Wen was well aware that audiences back home may still hear the messages he delivered overseas.

"Wen knows that adverse effects may result if he delivers similar messages in China," Pang said. "By addressing the messages to overseas audiences, Wen is actually interacting with local Chinese people."

But others are sceptical of Wen's call for reform, questioning his sincerity.

"As the No 2 man in China, he could have done so many things even though he faced oppositions from a lot of people inside the party," said Qiao Mu, a communications professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "But he is just paying lip service to overseas audiences, who demand more democracy in China. He is just filling the appetite of the Western countries."