Wen Pushes Reform as Transition Draws Near

Giving the final National People’s Congress (NPC) news conference of his 10-year tenure before a leadership transition which is expected to begin later this year, Premier Wen Jiabao argued that China must enact bold reforms to avoid the same mistakes as his Mao-era predecessors. From The Guardian’s Tania Branigan:

“We must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country,” Wen said at his annual press briefing at the end of the yearly session of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament.

“Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.

“The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”

He did not indicate what kind of reforms he had in mind, but stressed that they would have to be “gradually and orderly” and conform with “national circumstances”. He added that they would not be easy and would require “the consciousness, the support, the enthusiasm and creativity of our people”.

Branigan notes that some suggested Wen’s remarks about the Cultural Revolution were meant as a swipe at the embattled Bo Xilai, who has drawn critics for hits pursuit of a “Red Culture” revival as party chief of Chongqing. The Wall Street Journal echoed such sentiment, but noted that Wen largely stuck to the party line, and The Global Times published an overview of Wen’s public comments both today and during the remainder of the just-completed party congress.

Wen’s critics rushed to point out that he has seldom “walked the walk” with regards to reform, according to The Telegraph:

“Essentially, what he is saying is that the situation is bad, the Cultural Revolution may happen again, but it is not his responsibility, he is leaving and whether the situation gets worse, or there is even a collapse, it is nothing to do with him,” wrote one commenter on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “But he has governed for ten years, so what did he do? Who is to blame?”

Mr Wen appeared to be aware of the criticism surrounding him, adopting a deliberately humble position throughout the press conference.

“I feel truly sorry,” he said. “Due to my incompetent abilities and institutional and other factors, there is still much room for improvement in my work. I often feel that much work remains to be finished, many things have yet to be properly addressed, and there are many regrets.”

Mr Wen twice said that he would be judged by posterity, adding that he had the “courage to face the people, and to face history. There are people who will appreciate what I have done, and also people who will criticise me. Ultimately history will have the final say.”

“Premier Wen is worried that he will face unprecedented criticism when he retires,” explained Chu Zhaogen, a researcher at the Chinese Public Policy Research Centre at Fudan university, on his Weibo. “German newspapers are already saying that the ten years of his government are “ten lost years” for Chinese reform”.

One analyst doubted that Wen would accomplish any meaningful reform before the leadership handover, according to Reuters:

“I do not expect deep reforms in a transition year,” said Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist with Nomura in Hong Kong.

“Structural reforms take multiple years to finish so it makes sense for the new leaders to push them,” he told Reuters.

See also Shanghaiist’s collection of the best tweets on Wen’s press conference, from journalists inside and observers outside the room.