Wen Jiabao Steps Down to Uncertain Legacy

Premier Wen Jiabao, who will give up his post to Li Keqiang during the current National People’s Congress session, has delivered his final work report to congress delegates. In the speech, he set economic goals for China over the next five years, including a growth rate of 7.5%, and called for more attention to environmental problems (read the full report here). He also acknowledged additional problems that had not been effectively resolved during his tenure. From Bloomberg:

“We are keenly aware that we still face many difficulties and problems,” Wen told almost 3,000 delegates in his final report to the National People’s Congress in Beijing today. He set an economic growth target of 7.5 percent for this year, unchanged from 2012, and an inflation goal of 3.5 percent.

Those achievements have come at the cost of surging inequality, environmental degradation and growing financial risks, challenges that he leaves for incoming Premier Li Keqiang.

“There are also many problems Wen left behind, and the new leaders are to face and tackle,” said Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Hong Kong. They include “the risk of a property bubble, significantly increased local government debt, income equality and worsening pollution,” said Zhang, who previously worked for the International Monetary Fund.

Wen has promoted an image of a grandfatherly figure who is in touch with the people’s problems. In his final months in office, he has expressed regret for not accomplishing more while in office, and has also spoken out in favor of political reform and against corruption – even while being the subject of an investigative probe by U.S. media. From the New York Times:

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China, well known for baring his emotions in public, has displayed a blend of defeatism and defensiveness as he winds down his decade in office. During a visit last month to a Muslim neighborhood here, Mr. Wen lamented that he “fell short in some tasks” to improve people’s livelihoods. “In my heart I feel guilty and constantly blame myself,” he said.

But his most intriguing comments have touched on corruption. During a cabinet meeting last month, he said that even among top officials, “abuse of power, trading power for cash, and collusion between officialdom and commerce continue unabated.” And in a vague mea culpa before a group of overseas Chinese in Thailand late last year, Mr. Wen admitted to unidentified failings but defended his integrity by paraphrasing an ancient Chinese statesman said to have taken his own life to protest imperial corruption. “In the pursuit of truth, I would die nine times without regret,” he said.

With his retirement looming at the end of the annual meeting of China’s legislature that begins Tuesday, Mr. Wen, 70, has been struggling to push through economic changes and to shore up his image as a frugal populist and one of the few Communist Party leaders to champion political reform, even if that push has come to naught. But he has also been pressing hard to clear his name, particularly in the months since The New York Times published accounts of the way his immediate family had become extraordinarily rich during his time in high office.

But Wen has also been called “China’s greatest actor” by critics. The South China Morning Post looks at these two sides of Wen’s legacy:

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.

His final work report also received mixed reviews on Chinese social media, according to the BBC:

Wu Tianzheng says on Sina Weibo: “Premier Wen’s last report made it clear that urbanisation is part of the modernisation drive, and that it would help the reform of the registration card system. It’s a good proposal, but it was not implemented during his last five years in government; Now that he is retiring, who will carry it through?”

On Tencent Weibo, Hu Zhihai posts that economic increases have “only benefitted the corrupt officials; ordinary people are still poor, some dying in garbage bins, or under the bridge; many can’t afford to go to school or buy houses. Please save these people.”

Liu Jianqiang, a magazine editor, is pleased that the speech referred to pollution issues. “He [Wen Jiabao] says let people see hope from our actions – very impressive; but I feel that hope is fading, now even soil has become a state secret. People know nothing.”

Read more about Wen Jiabao, via CDT.


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