A decade is a long time in politics, particularly for someone put in charge of the day-to-day running of a country as dynamic and diverse as China. Yet outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao has persevered with the task, making the most of his skills as a technocrat while putting himself forward as a man of the people. He has gamely steered the economy and made many grand gestures and promises, most of which remain unfulfilled as he prepares to hand over to Li Keqiang. There are those who will be sorry to see him go; others want his successor to be more about substance than populism.
Wen's swansong report on the work of the government, delivered at the National People's Congress yesterday, comprised the usual mix of pledges and targets. Some will be attainable, others difficult to achieve. The GDP growth goal remains unchanged at 7.5 per cent, the aim for inflation 3.5 per cent, the deficit will be increased to 12 trillion yuan (HK14.8 trillion) and defence spending will rise 10.7 per cent year-on-year. More challenging will be promises to deal with environmental woes, stimulate private investment and expand domestic demand.
Some are familiar themes for Wen, who has been a vocal advocate of reform. His championing the causes of those less fortunate in society has been in stark contrast to the approach of other officials, earning him the nickname Grandpa Wen. But the term has been used as much in jest as respect. His calls for change have largely gone nowhere. Even his stewardship of the economy, which surpassed Japan's to become the world's second largest in 2010, leaves a mixed legacy.
Years of annual GDP growth rates averaging 10.9 per cent mean that more than half of the nation is now urbanised, most homes have a television, refrigerator and washing machine and one in five families own a car. But the rapid growth has come at a cost, with corruption rampant, a wide gap between the haves and have-nots and social discontent ever-rising. Wen's image has been tarnished by claims of vast family wealth. Yet he can also be proud of gains, the most significant being the abolition of the thousand-year-old tax on farmers and the introduction of a health care system that now covers almost 700 million people.
Wen's era will be remembered for China's first manned space flights and the launch of its aircraft carrier. Li will be given a solid economic foundation on which to build a better nation. It is a good legacy, but tough challenges have been left that make the new premier's job daunting.