WEN JIABAO: A REFORMER AT HEART?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 7

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

There seems little question that, given the constraints of Chinese politics, Vice Premier Wen Jiabao is a reasonably suitable candidate to succeed Zhu Rongji as premier next March. The big question is whether Wen has what it takes to defuse China’s mounting contradictions and to pick up the threads of reform.

It is instructive to examine the 59-year-old geologist’s strong suits. First, it is not for nothing that he is called a “latter-day Zhou Enlai,” a reference to the late premier who is still revered for holding China together during the Cultural Revolution. Apart perhaps from party elder and former Politburo Standing Committee member Song Ping, Wen was hardly the beneficiary of top-level patronage when he was transferred from the Ministry of Geology to the Chinese Communist Party’s General Office (CCPGO) in late 1985.

As China scholar Wu Jiaxiang, a former CCPGO official now doing research at Harvard University, pointed out, Wen became a vice director of the General Office after successfully going through a series assessments and recommendations given by Organization Department officials and senior ministers. “Wen has superb administrative skills,” said Wu. “Particularly given his science background, his ability to handle and refine official documents is quite amazing.”

THE ZHAO ZIYANG UNDERLING

The Tianjin native also knows how to avoid being entangled in the party’s factional intrigues. Since the mid-1980s, Wen has served top leaders including the late party chief Hu Yaobang, ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang, President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. His apparent closeness to Zhao–which was attested to by the now-famous photograph of Wen accompanying the ill-fated party boss to see the hunger-striking students at Tiananmen Square in May 1989–almost cost him his career.

But after the June 4 massacre, Wen managed to win the trust of Zhao’s successor, Jiang–as well as of party elders, including Deng Xiaoping and Yang Shangkun. Yang reportedly vouched for Wen’s loyalty when then Premier Li Peng wanted to sack the “Zhao Ziyang underling.”

Since moving to the State Council as vice premier in 1998, Wen has proven himself indispensable to his new boss, Premier Zhu Rongji. Among the four vice premiers, Wen has held the most important portfolios. They include agriculture, finance and major projects, such as the develop-the-west program and the drafting of the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005). Wen, along with Vice President Hu Jintao (who is expected to succeed Jiang as party chief and state president within the year) and Head of the Organization Department Zeng Qinghong (Jiang’s top protege), is also responsible for overall preparations for the 16th CCP Congress.

“The Zhou Enlai nickname came about because of Wen’s ability to navigate the vast government bureaucracy–and to oblige different and even rival departments to work together,” said a party source. “During cabinet meetings, [Premier] Zhu often asks Wen to speak toward the end, that is, to sum up the suggestions of cabinet members. Wen is much less garrulous than fellow cadres such as [Vice Premier] Wu Banguo. But few can match Wen’s ability to convert complicated issues into straightforward policy recommendations.”

The source added that Wen spoke in a slow, measured rhythm and that he was calm and methodical, an interesting foil to the impatient and headstrong Zhu. Beijing analysts, furthermore, have credited a number of important initiatives to Wen. In 1999, the vice premier suggested limiting the taxes that a farmer had to pay to five percent of his income. In 2000, he and Zhu announced that it would be illegal for grassroots administrations to slap extra levies and charges on peasants. Wen has been instrumental in expanding the stock markets–and ensuring that better-quality state-owned enterprises can go through quasi-privatization through listings on the bourses.

A POSITIVE IMAGE, BUT…

Perhaps because of the frequency with which Wen appears on television on missions such as handling flood control and visiting poor peasants, he has a generally positive image among cadres and ordinary citizens. In a poll that an unofficial website conducted earlier this year on the popularity of Politburo members, Wen had the highest score.

According to domestic and foreign reporters covering the just-ended National People’s Congress (NPC), Wen was received enthusiastically by deputies when he joined provincial NPC members for small-group discussions. By contrast, the stars of his two rivals for the premiership, Vice Premier Wu Bangguo and Guangdong Party Secretary Li Changchun, seem to be dimming.

However, despite Wen’s reputation as a “can do” vice premier and his overall acceptability to all factions, he has also come in for criticism. Given that his major portfolio is agriculture, the sorry state of the countryside–the near-stagnant income of farmers and growing numbers of rural riots and demonstrations–cannot but hurt his prestige. After all, Premier Zhu, his patron, admitted at the NPC that his cabinet’s main failure was in the area of ameliorating the livelihood of 600 million farmers.

Wen’s defenders, however, have pointed out that there is little the vice premier can do given the central leadership’s pro-industry and pro-coast bias since Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978. There are strong expectations that together with Hu, Wen might to some extent shift the focus of development away from the coast and back to the central and western provinces. While most senior cadres on the political stage have earned their spurs along the rich coast, both Wen and Hu spent a good chunk of their careers in the hinterland. Wen was a geologist in hardscrabble Gansu for fourteen years; and Hu had stints in Gansu, Guizhou and Tibet.

Analysts say if only to boost their popularity among cadres from agrarian, hinterland provinces, it is quite possible Wen and Hu–who lack national stature and legitimacy–may position themselves as champions for the resuscitation of rural, heartland regions. It is instructive that the municipal leadership of Shanghai, which has received the bulk of central attention and funds for the past decade, has felt so nervous about the rise of a so-called “Hu-Wen axis” that it is trying hard to have major infrastructure projects approved when Jiang is still around.

Perhaps more important, however, is whether Wen is liberal enough to push through economic, and particularly, political reform. A senior Western diplomat said while Wen had studiously steered clear of controversial ideological issues such as political liberalization, his reformist credentials were impressive. When addressing a recent investors’ forum, Wen said that China must “enthusiastically” take part in globalization. “We must grasp the trends of global international development, take firm hold of the opportunities and boldly accept challenges,” Wen said. And while touring Anhui Province last year, Wen told local cadres to “continue to make bold explorations, create new experience and steadfastly push reform forward.”

Some analysts already see the possibility of Wen and Hu forming a strategic alliance in the post-16th Congress order. The analysts say it is possible that if relatively liberal Politburo member Li Ruihuan becomes chairman of the NPC next year, a Hu-Wen-Li bloc may be formed in the new Politburo Standing Committee as a counterweight to the remnants of the Jiang faction, who will likely be represented by Zeng and Wu Bangguo.

According to seasoned observers such as China scholar Wu Jiaxiang, the nervous political climate that is expected to reign in Beijing for the foreseeable future would make it difficult for Wen to show his true colors during his first term as premier (2003-2008). “Wen is believed to be a reformer at heart,” said Wu, adding that much depends on the outcome of factional struggle now being played out in Beijing. At this stage, obviously, it is in Wen’s interest to play down his reformist proclivities when still-powerful conservative elders such as NPC chief Li Peng are scheming to deny him the prize of head of the State Council.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

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