China’s Premier Seeks Reforms and Relevance

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, bowing, at the scene of a deadly July 23 train wreck near Wenzhou. The crash, and subsequent official efforts to suppress information, have stirred anger in China.

BEIJING — China’s prime minister,Wen Jiabao, stood amid funerary wreaths in Wenzhou, near where ahigh-speed train accident claimed 40 lives late last month, and pledged an “open and transparent” government inquiry into the disaster. “The key,” he said, “is whether the people can get the truth.”

The next day, censors silenced the news media’s dogged reporting on railway negligence and corruption, then started censoring posts on microblogs that had stoked outrage over the crash.

By last week, the government inquiry itself was accused of being rigged, run by a panel that included the Railways Ministry’s second in command and loyalist experts.

Such indignities are not new. As Mr. Wen enters the twilight of a decade as China’s third-ranked leader, he appears to be struggling to remain relevant in a political system that covets his benevolent public image but has little use for his ideas.

The leading spokesman for what passes for political liberalism in China, Mr. Wen is by most accounts ideologically isolated on the Communist Party’s nine-member Politburo standing committee. More than once, his views have been rebuffed, tacitly or openly, in party organs. There are tantalizing hints of rifts with his boss, President Hu Jintao.

“Grandpa Wen,” who shares the common man’s pain and champions his interests, is easily China’s most popular politician. But internally, as Communist Party hard-liners strengthen their control, his advocacy of political reform has increasingly sapped his influence.

He has become such a high-risk figure, one official news media editor says, that a conservative-led state radio network last year balked at his offer of an exclusive exchange with listeners on the air. Even liberals who support Mr. Wen’s reformist oratory find themselves disillusioned by his failure to gain traction within the leadership.

“When Wen became premier eight years ago, people had high hopes because his speeches always leave people hopeful,” said He Weifang, a liberal Beijing legal scholar. “But now it has been eight years. His term is coming to an end. It’s doubtful whether he genuinely has the strong will to reform, because it doesn’t seem he has taken enough convincing actions to resist the conservatives.”

Mr. Wen has never been seen as especially strong. Some scholars of China’s leadership say his unspecific calls for democracy and people power actually fit comfortably within a Communist Party committed to absolute rule.

Others question his maverick credentials, calling him less a reformer than the good cop in a bad-cop system. “Wen’s become the human face of the administration, and he’s been very effective,” said Susan Shirk, a longtime China expert at the University of California, San Diego. “The other possibility is that Wen Jiabao has two faces. He advocates transparency in his public statements, but only insofar as it doesn’t threaten the authority of the party.”

But in a mostly faceless and closed-mouth leadership, no one strains so publicly at his tethers — or suffers as many rebuffs — as Mr. Wen. That pattern has intensified as jockeying begins for next year’s choices of a new politburo and the next generation of China’s top leaders.

The Wenzhou episode is illustrative. One political analyst close to senior officials said Mr. Wen had not planned to visit the disaster scene; a deputy prime minister who oversees work safety, Zhang Dejiang, was to handle the matter.

But with Mr. Zhang in charge, backhoes crushed and buried a wrecked train car at the site — and provoked a national outcry from bloggers who accused the government of a cover-up. Mr. Wen, then in a People’s Liberation Army hospital and limited to occasional appearances, was sent to Wenzhou to soothe the masses.

Mr. Wen pointedly mentioned that he had been sick — a rare disclosure for a leader — then delivered a call for truth, justice and an inquiry that was open at “every step” to public supervision. The official state media took Mr. Wen’s broadside as a pass to keep digging into Railways Ministry incompetence.
But the event underscored how the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department trumps a prime minister’s pledge of openness. China’s national CCTV network, which normally trails Mr. Wen to every disaster scene, did not broadcast his remarks live, prompting one anchor to protest on his microblog. Within a day, press coverage backflipped to cheery articles like a paean to the new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line.

And it showed that Mr. Wen, who leads the cabinetlike State Council, has trouble controlling a State Council investigation — indeed, not even President Hu controls China’s fractured ruling elite.

As he did after the train accident, Mr. Wen stood in the rubble of the Sichuan Province earthquake in 2008 and promised a transparent investigation into the collapses of shoddily built schools that killed thousands of children. The press reported that 2,500 investigators were deployed. But no wrongdoing was ever disclosed — instead, several activists who pursued malfeasance wound up in detention.

Mr. Wen can be crafty. In April 2010, analysts puzzled over a People’s Daily essay by him — published while President Hu was in Brazil — extolling Hu Yaobang, the popular leader forced to resign in 1987 for his reformist bent and whose death, in 1989, helped propel the Tiananmen Square protests. One anecdote described a Hu Yaobang visit that Mr. Wen arranged with Guizhou Province villagers — secretly, he wrote, because Hu Yaobang did not trust local leaders to let them speak freely.

President Hu was the Guizhou party chief during that visit. Outsiders largely missed the article’s implicit jab — but President Hu was mightily displeased, said an editor with high official connections.

More often, Mr. Wen is blunt. In a speech last August in Shenzhen, the birthplace of China’s market-oriented reforms, he warned that “without political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring.”

He followed in October by telling CNN that “the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible” and that Chinese should be permitted to criticize the government more freely. The state press, which ignored a similar CNN interview in 2008, ignored this one as well.

But shortly afterward, People’s Daily began publishing a five-editorial series on party discipline, which was said by two state media editors to have been orchestrated by President Hu’s leading strategists and approved by top leadership.

A sentence in one stood out: “The notion that political reform has seriously lagged” is not only “contrary to objective laws, but also inconsistent with objective facts.”

At least once after the CNN appearance, two journalists close to senior party officials said, members of the leadership personally, although how strongly was unclear, warned Mr. Wen about making statements that appeared out of tune with the Communist Party line.

At 68, with retirement in sight, Mr. Wen may not care about such slaps on the wrist. In fact, he might gain a voice in shaping the next class of upper-echelon leaders.

But Mr. Wen’s happy-warrior persona also shows signs of tarnishing his standing with the masses, as government action consistently falls short of his promises. “More people are starting to ask, ‘Why don’t these words come true?’ ” said Mr. He, the legal scholar.

Chen Jianping, 23, a friend of two of Wenzhou train-crash survivors, said “I only believe part of what Premier Wen said. The government is unable to carry out everything it promises; some of what he says may be just show.”

Yet in a China that seems more suspicious of authority almost daily, a show may be better than nothing.

“The cynicism about the system is rising,” said Cheng Li, a Brookings Institution scholar of the Chinese leadership. “My real worry is whether the next generation will have a Wen Jiabao-like leader.”

Staff of the Beijing bureau of The New York Times contributed research


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