From Tiananmen to the Sichuan Quake: A Profile of Wen Jiabao

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 12

The well-coordinated, massive relief and propaganda efforts organized by the central government are called by some international observers the most pronounced phenomenon emerging from China’s recent natural devastations (People’s Daily Online, May 22). But the government in Beijing has always been keen on organizing massive projects such as the one the world witnessed following the January snowstorms and now the Sichuan quake, as Beijing is one of the few governments in the world that can, and is willing to, utilize vast human and material resources on such a scale. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability to mobilize the entire nation showcase the efficacy and power of the CCP, which has maintained a monopoly on national and local governance and social movement. In fact, in the annals of the CCP government’s mass movements to mobilize the nation that either caused catastrophe—such as the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s that led to the famine killing at least 30 million Chinese—or alleviate the impacts of natural disasters, this current national campaign, officially billed as “Resist the Quake, Redress the Disaster” (kangzhen jiuzai) movement, is less intense when compared to the mass relief and propaganda campaigns of the past. For example, the 1975 Yangtze River flood that killed at least 85,000 people [1], the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that took at least 242,000 lives [2], or even the more recent 1998 “Resist the Flood, Redress the Disaster” campaign of 1998 had relief and propaganda campaigns on a much larger scale. This is because the government would very much like to replace the quake from the people’s conscience with the grand party that is much higher on the leadership’s agenda list: Namely, the 2008 Summer Olympics.

What is singularly unique, however, is the sudden rise in popularity of an unlikely star who has quickly become a national phenomenon arising from the rubbles of the quake: the boyish-looking 66 year-old Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Within hours of the quake, far before the mounting death toll became apparent and confirmed, Wen flew to the epicenter to console the quake-ravaged villagers (Xinhua News Agency, May 14). Since day one of the quake, he has been seen daily in the print and electronic news outlets across China as the chief coordinator of relief and propaganda campaign. The crowds in cities and the countryside across the nation went wild when they saw on government-controlled TV stations that Wen refused medical treatment for bruises caused by a fall in the rubbles of a collapsed building because there were living souls still buried under that very building (Global Chinese Press [Canada], May 21; Xinhua News Agency, May 21). Internet users flooded chat rooms with praises for Wen’s moving and consoling gesture toward a group of crying orphans in a village. To the people of China, Wen has become known by many as “the People’s Premier” or “Grandpa Wen” (Chongqing News, June 3; Christian Science Monitor, May 19).

A consummate bureaucrat and technocrat, Wen was trained as a geologist in college. He has been a Communist official since 1965 when he started out as a minor Party functionary in the geological survey community in the Northwestern province of Gansu, where he slowly but steadily rose within the provincial Party hierarchy. In the early 1980s, then CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang discovered Wen Jiabao and gave him a “helicopter ride” straight up from the rustic Gansu province to the Communist Central Committee in Beijing as the deputy in the Party’s Central Office. When Hu Yaobang was purged in 1987 for failing to effectively suppress intellectual discontents, Wen Jiabao survived the purge and went on to serve as the top assistant to China’s next Communist Party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, whose tenure covered the tumultuous 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. The most dramatic moment in Wen’s political life came when Zhao decided to oppose the decision to massacre the student protesters in Tiananmen Square. When Zhao showed sympathy for the protesters’ cause by visiting the square personally in an attempt to persuade the protesters to leave the square and avoid bloodshed, Wen Jiabao went along. Zhao was promptly purged and remained under house arrest for over 15 years until his death in January 2005. The image of Wen accompanying his agonized and crying boss in Tiananmen Square before the infamous massacre would have doomed his political career under normal circumstances; miraculously, though, Wen survived once again. He continued to flourish within the Party central hierarchy and went on to work as a vice premier under General Secretary Jiang Zemin. In 2003, after Jiang faded, Hu Jintao became the Communist Party’s Fourth Generation Core Leader as the Party’s general secretary, and Wen Jiabao became the premier of China and the third-highest ranked Communist Party official. Wen has held that position ever since.

This career pattern makes Wen Jiabao a most unique official in China: He is the only Standing Committee member of the ruling Politburo, throughout the history of the Communist Party since its founding in 1921, to have served four general secretaries: Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Two of these four have been purged and become virtually non-persons in China’s deadly cycles of power struggle. Wen Jiabao has accomplished this extraordinary feat primarily by being non-confrontational, unassuming, conciliatory or, some may even say, unprincipled. To be the ultimate survivor of China’s precarious political game, one has to bend constantly according to the wind currently blowing. A case in point is how Wen, just weeks before the Sichuan quake, condemned the Dalai Lama for his alleged role in the Tibet riots: “There is ample fact and plenty of evidence proving this incident was organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique … This has all the more revealed the consistent claims by the Dalai clique that they pursue not independence, but peaceful dialogue, are nothing but lies” (Reuters, March 18).

Making hardline remarks such as this requires sacrifice in independent thinking and political vision. In fact, since having shown great sympathy toward the student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Wen has evaded the issue of the Tiananmen Massacre as if it were a plague and has supported the Party’s decision to quell the demonstration as necessary (Sydney Morning Herald, June 3, 2004).

But the most enduring and primary public image of Wen in the collective memory of the nation—perhaps most revealing of his personality—is that of “Mr. Tears,” due to his penchant to cry in the aftermath of human or natural disasters. He cried during China’s January snowstorms that paralyzed the nation’s main transportation arteries [3]; he cried when visiting the mine accidents where miners were trapped and killed (, March 19); during the current quake crisis, Wen’s most memorable public persona has been his crying in front of national TV to show his sympathy and sorrow for the victims (, May 13).

Thus the issue of the premier’s tears has become a celebrated topic for many in China to debate, especially on the rapidly growing bulletins on the Internet [4]. While the majority of the Internet messages are sympathetic of Wen’s tears, others hold that although a premier’s crying may manifest the ultimate compassion and sympathy for the ravaged and the downtrodden, it also indicates a certain sense of helplessness and feebleness during a time of national crisis when courage, vision, and resolve, not tears, are more needed from a national leader [5]. Yet the sharpest criticism of Wen’s tears has been related to his complete lack of sympathy for the suffering of Tibetans [6].

In fact, this debate on the premier’s crying should not be a trivial matter. Its poignancy and enormous political implications have been closely related to Wen’s former mentor, Zhao Ziyang, the CCP general secretary who famously cried in Tiananmen Square, begging the protesters to leave the place that would soon become an intended killing field. If Zhao were not indecisive or did not cry in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or if he instead stood on top of a tank sympathetic to the pro-democracy forces—bravely commanding the tremendous force of the millions yearning for freedom, human rights, and for a change of the corrupt system, like Boris Yeltsin in the waning days of the Soviet Union—China may have already had a bold and visionary political leader and a brand new political reality. But in the final crucial moments that decided history, Moscow did not believe in tears, and Beijing did. A great historic opportunity was lost by Zhao for the complete lack of a strong and resolute visionary leader from within the power elite who alone could command the enormous political and military resources to change history. And now, as Zhao’s erstwhile protégé, Wen continues that legacy [7].

Dissenting voices have emerged on the Chinese Internet that Wen Jiabao should shed fewer tears and demonstrate more vision and resolve in tackling China’s more fundamental problems such as resolutely confronting the CCP’s political albatross known as the Tiananmen Massacre; bravely facilitating the process of giving up one-party monopoly on political power and carrying out true elections nationwide [8].

Unfortunately, Wen continues to cry to show heart but little resolve and vision for a politically democratic China. Many have pointed out in China’s online chat rooms that as China’s bureaucrat-in-chief, Wen cares only to be the consummate manager, not the resolute leader [9]. The difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager’s primary concern is how to do things right, but a leader’s is how to do the right things. Without advanced leadership qualities, Wen, with superb managerial skills, could at best yell at incompetent officials on the phone and hang up on them threateningly, as broadcast on national TV during the current Sichuan quake relief campaign [10], but he will never be able to root out the ubiquitous patronage network of incompetent officials everywhere within China’s massive bureaucratic machine and entrenched political culture.

The real tragedy is that Wen Jiabao is working diligently to preserve an obsolete political system that may well only represent the man’s political resolve and vision, as he recently wrote to the nation that “We must keep a firm grasp on the basic principles of the Party in the initial stage of socialism, without wavering, for 100 years” (People’s Daily, February 27).

On this 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, let us hope that Wen did not really mean those words, because another 100 years of socialism will only mean another 100 years’ absence of true democracy in China.


1. See Yi Si, “The World’s Most Catastrophic Dam Failures: The August 1975 Collapse of the Banqiao and Shimantan Dams,” in Dai Qing, The River Dragon Has Come!, M.E. Sharpe, New York, 1998.

2. See Chen Yong, et al, The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, Pergamon Press, 1988

3. e.g., one blogger’s rumination, “Moved by Premier’s Tears” [gandong yu zongli de lioulei],

4. There are countless discussion threads focusing on this in any given Chinese Internet discussion or blogging sites. For an example, see “The Three Times Premier Wen Cries (Chinese)” [wenzongli de sanchi luolei],

5. For example, “Should Premier Wen Cry?” [wenjiabao gai bu gai lioulei?]

6. “Why Didn’t Premier Wen Cry This Time? (Chinese)” [zheyici wenzongli weishime buku liao?],

7. Some in China have directly associated Wen’s tears with Zhao’s. Ibid.

8. For example, “Premier Wen Should Swallow His Tears” [quan wenzongli ba yanlei yan dao duzi li],

9. Ibid.

10. See “Containing Tears, Premier Wen Gets Mad Twice While Inspecting the Disaster” [hanlei shihcha jhongzaiou wenzongli liangcih fanu],