Wen Jiabao

Wen Jiabao: the people's champion or a chameleon

To his supporters, Wen Jiabao has used his time as premier to fight for justice and equality; to his detractors he's been all talk and no action

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:35am

Premier Wen Jiabao has been a controversial figure of the past decade, winning praise and criticism in equal measure.

Sympathisers and admirers say he has been a true reformer and the "people's premier". Opponents question his sincerity because he has often failed to live up to his reformist pledges and meet public expectations.

When he was made premier and given custody of the world's largest developing economy a decade ago, Wen was seen as a cautious and skilful technocrat with an uncanny ability to adapt to fast-shifting political winds and maintain the trust of different Communist Party factions.

Now 71 and leaving office after two five-year terms, he has an image as the most outspoken state leader of his time, thanks to his calls for political reform. They have made him a lonely voice in the communist leadership, regardless of his sincerity.

In one his last major speeches, at a State Council executive meeting on January 23, Wen showed he was still willing to take risks, once again urging political reform to uphold democracy and the rule of law.

In the speech, published in the latest issue of the party magazine Seeking Truth, Wen frankly summarised his cabinet's achievements and failures over the past decade, including mismanagement of the economy and stagnating institutional reform that has left the government without checks and balances.

Wen also used his last annual press conference, at the end of last year's session of the National People's Congress, to apologise for his mistakes, and he used his last cabinet meeting to acknowledge his frustration with the system and his failure to bring about any meaningful change.

Professor Liu Kang, a China-watcher and director of Duke University's China study programme, said Wen had been working hard to cement two legacies - as "a political reformer" and "a people's premier".

Wen called for political reform in a series of speeches in recent years, mostly during trips overseas, appearing more like a dissident or a human rights campaigner than a communist leader by saying that "democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights are shared values pursued by humanity over the long course of history, the products of a common civilisation".

Critics accuse him of using his last two years in office to cultivate his public image before retirement - or deliberately playing the role of an outspoken reformer in an effort to balance the communist leadership's conservative image.

But sympathisers say Wen has really represented a dissenting voice within the top leadership because many other members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee have argued the opposite on countless occasions.

Many analysts say Wen's remarks echo increasingly louder calls for political reform from within and outside the ruling party, with many lower-ranking officials and academics in government think tanks also joining the chorus.

Professor Zhang Ming , a political scientist at Renmin University, said the fact that Wen often made his bold calls during overseas trips, and those remarks were sometimes censored on the mainland, suggested he was out of step with other senior leaders.

President Hu Jintao and other top party leaders have repeatedly ruled out Western-style democracy and made it clear the leadership does not envision a fundamental overhaul of one-party rule.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said: "It got to the point that one has to ask whether Wen was really committed to political reform, which most China hands, including myself, thought he was, at least of a kind, when he took power a decade ago.

"Having been premier for 10 years and yet delivered so little in a policy area that he said he was committed to does come across as odd or highly incompetent or disingenuous."

Even in the less politically contentious field of economic management, Wen's record is mixed. Quantitatively, he can lay claim to being the most outstanding head of government in China's history due to the exceptional economic growth during his reign. But qualitatively, Wen failed to live up to public expectations and reach the goals he set for himself when he came to office in 2003.

Wen, who will be succeeded by Li Keqiang at the annual NPC meeting beginning on Tuesday, has overseen the continuation of one of the most remarkable economic transformations in history, taking China from the world's sixth-largest economy to No2, trailing only the United States.

It has also become the world's wealthiest nation in terms of foreign reserves - now US$3.3 trillion; the world's largest exporter, car producer and consumer; and home to the world's longest high-speed rail system.

He has overseen the world's largest poverty-eradication campaign and succeeded in lifting tens of millions of people out of misery, with per capita income growing from US$800 to about US$5,000 in the past decade.

Since 2010, the country has also replaced the US to become the biggest single contributor to global economic growth.

But Wen also came to office with pledges to tackle an unbalanced economic structure, reduce income disparity and alleviate environmental destruction.

Zhang said Wen would leave behind severe environmental damage, a deteriorating economic structure and an ever-widening wealth gap.

Some bloggers have said that under Wen's rule, disparity, pollution and corruption "have become the worst" in the history of the People's Republic.

He also failed to continue the reform momentum set by his predecessor Zhu Rongji in reducing bureaucrats' economic power, breaking up state monopolies in many highly profitable sectors and deregulating state controls on prices.

Tsang said Wen had little to show for his decade in power.

"The economy looks robust but the major problems that needed to be tackled are still there," he said. "The task of re-balancing the economy has just got bigger and more difficult in the past decade. This is one of the main legacies of Wen."

Wen also tasted defeat in his decade-long fight to tame skyrocketing property prices, losing to a coalition of businessmen and local officials. Housing prices in urban areas have rocketed, with almost tenfold gains in Beijing and Shanghai over the past decade. But Wen used his last cabinet meeting to reiterate the government's determination to continue the fight.

Winnie Cheng Yun, research director at Hong Kong real estate agency Centaline Group, said he was just talking the talk in regard to taming property prices.

Wen has worked hard on his populist image as a grandfatherly premier who cares for the underprivileged, earning nicknames including "grandpa Wen" and the "people's premier".

He has usually been the first top official to arrive at the scene of a disaster. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, Wen travelled around the quake zone, comforting weeping victims.

He visited Hong Kong only once during his decade in office, just three months after becoming premier. But the trip won him plaudits because he chose to visit Amoy Gardens, the housing estate in Kowloon Bay hit hard by the Sars outbreak just a few weeks earlier. Residents credited him with helping restore confidence in the estate at a time when even taxi drivers were reluctant to drop passengers off there.

He has also routinely ushered in the new year by visiting remote, cold and backward places, using the occasion to send out a caring message.

But Wen's image was tainted by a New York Times report last year on the wealth allegedly accumulated by his relatives.

And in the book China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, dissident author Yu Jie dismissed Wen's image as a reformist "people's premier", saying he deserved an Oscar for the political role he had played.

Tsang said Xi Jinping, who will succeed Hu as president, was comfortable in his own skin and, unlike Hu, was at ease rubbing shoulders with ordinary people, which meant "there will not even be a legacy in the double act that marked the Hu-Wen partnership".

"Wen's successor, Li Keqiang, is unlikely to inherit a new 'uncle Li' image that 'grandpa Wen' associated with the premiership," Tsang said.

Liu said that as Wen became frustrated and gave up hope of a substantive overhaul of the system, he had chosen instead to "shape the verdict of posterity" - like many emperors and mandarins before him.