Wednesday, 21 May 2008


In Quake, Apotheosis of Premier ‘Grandpa’
May 21, 2008 News Analysis
NY Times

CHENGDU, China — He is widely known as “the crying prime
minister,” although he prefers to be called “Grandpa Wen.”
Over the past week, as Wen Jiabao toured
earthquake-shattered towns and cities across northern
Sichuan, he has hollered out words of encouragement to
those trapped beneath fallen buildings and shared tearful
moments with newly orphaned children.

If a story widely circulated on the Internet is to be
believed, Prime Minister Wen has been barking orders to
army generals and dispatching paratroopers to remote towns
hit hard in the quake, even though as China’s head of
government operations he has no power over the military.

Since ascending to the post in 2003, Mr. Wen, 65, has
cultivated an image as a man of the people, a rarity in the
pantheon of Chinese leaders, who are often seen as placing
stability and the authority of the Communist Party above
the wants of individuals. The state news media have long
labored to spread the notion that Mr. Wen cares for
ordinary folks, broadcasting his visits with coal miners
and migrant workers, and showing him eagerly shaking the
hands of drug addicts and people with AIDS.

Now, as the nation grapples with its greatest natural
disaster in three decades, Mr. Wen’s persona as an
empathetic, benevolent official has been cemented in
popular lore. He has become the public and inescapable face
of a nation’s grief since he jumped on a government jet
bound for Sichuan Province less than two hours after the
earthquake struck.

His high-profile humanitarian gestures, played again and
again on television, have stood in stark contrast to the
response of the rulers of Myanmar, who have been widely
denounced for inaction toward the victims of a devastating
cyclone. But Mr. Wen also appears to have forged a new,
media-savvy mold for Chinese leaders, who have long
delegated propaganda work to lower-ranking officials and
the state-run press.

“He really loves the common people, and we can see this is
not an act,” said Wang Liangen, 72, a retired math teacher
from the devastated city of Dujiangyan, who watched last
week as the prime minister climbed over the wreckage of a
school where hundreds of children were buried. “He has
brought the people closer together, and brought the people
closer to the government.”

Some analysts say Mr. Wen’s unusually public role may
signal at least a modest shift in the way the Communist
Party interacts with the Chinese citizenry. In a country
where many millions live in poverty and thousands perish
each year in mine accidents, for example, Mr. Wen ordered
shortly after the quake that lives must be saved “at any
cost.” And while Mr. Wen is not known to have supported any
substantive political change during his first five-year
term as prime minister, his frequent calls for more
democratic-style consultation with ordinary people and for
greater economic parity have resonated with the poor.

“Wen’s efforts will absolutely leave a long-lasting
influence on government work in the future,” said Fang
Ning, a political scientist at the China Academy of Social
Science in Beijing. “His quick response and immediate
appearance will set a precedent for other officials.”

It is difficult to know if the rescue effort Mr. Wen has
led will ultimately be judged a success. And it is unlikely
that the unusually vigorous press coverage of the quake and
of Mr. Wen’s hands-on role in managing the rescue effort
signal a shift away from strict censorship.

But Mr. Wen and his boss, President Hu Jintao, do seem
inclined to show the world a kindler, gentler side of
official China in advance of the Olympic Games. After the
international backlash over China’s crackdown on ethnic
Tibetans, the leaders have used the earthquake in an effort
to show that their authoritarian government can be
responsive, even populist, at crucial moments.

“I think the earthquake really has the potential to change
things,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow of the Brookings
Institution, who argues that Mr. Wen — whose second
appointed term expires in 2012 — is one of China’s
brightest and most pragmatic modern leaders. Even before
his actions in Sichuan, he said, Mr. Wen was a muscular
champion for China’s have-nots, an advocate of broadening
the use of legal norms to help govern the country, and a
bulwark against party conservatives. “A lot of Chinese have
been overwhelmed by Wen and his sincerity, honesty and
humanity,” Dr. Li said. “Not many leaders have his

Mr. Wen often talks about democracy but is not a proponent
of Western-style democratic reforms. He remains an
unwavering advocate of single-party rule, and he has taken
a hard line on Tibet, accusing the Dalai Lama of
instigating the ethnic Tibetan unrest in March. In public
statements, he has said China is unafraid to use its
military might to prevent Taiwan from declaring
independence from the mainland.

Despite Mr. Wen’s well-tended image as an apolitical
pragmatist, cynics note that he did not earn his lofty post
by playing nice. “It takes a considerable amount of
political skill and cunning to become premier of China,”
said Fred Teiwes, a professor of Chinese politics at the
University of Sydney in Australia.

Mr. Wen is nothing if not the consummate survivor. A
lifelong technocrat, he made his way to the top of the heap
by pleasing his superiors, hewing to the party line and
making few enemies. A trained geologist who comes from a
family of teachers, he is sometimes ridiculed for
indecisiveness and for long-winded speeches flecked with
quotations from Descartes and classical Chinese poetry. In
the 1980s he served as a top aide to successive party
bosses, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang; both leaders were
purged after opposing harsh crackdowns on liberal forces in
society, but Mr. Wen went on to serve in senior posts under
their more conservative successors.

As with most Chinese leaders, much about him remains a
mystery. But he presents himself as self-effacing and
penurious. For more than a decade, he wore the same dull
green overcoat. Unlike most of his fellow cadres, he
refuses to tint his graying hair with gobs of black dye.

In contrast to Mr. Hu, an opaque and aloof statesman, Mr.
Wen favors a colloquial speaking style, even if his
comments always hew closely to the party script. Unlike his
predecessor, Zhu Rongji, who was known for his jocular
manner and snap decisions, Mr. Wen, when faced with tough
economic policy choices, will often spend days ruminating
and consulting before deferring to fellow members of the
ruling Politburo Standing Committee for a collective
decision, party officials have said.

“He may not be a good leader,” said Dr. Li, of Brookings,
“but the perception out there is that he’s a good person.”

That has been the overwhelming impression since a
somber-looking Mr. Wen announced news of the earthquake on
May 12 as he flew from Beijing to Sichuan. In the days that
followed, he was frequently shown hugging quake victims and
promising government aid. According to people who saw him
in those first few days, he cried more than once.

In recent days, a pro-government newspaper in Hong Kong and
a Guangzhou-based Web site wrote that Mr. Wen had tripped
and fallen as he walked on earthquake rubble and had
refused medical treatment for a bloody arm.

A more intriguing account described his fury when he
learned that rescuers from the People’s Liberation Army had
yet to reach Wenchuan, a city of 100,000 at the quake’s
epicenter. Even if concocted by Mr. Wen’s admirers, the
report reveals a shift away from the prime minister’s
persona as a vacillating, avuncular bureaucrat.

According to the account — which has been ricocheting by
text message for days — Mr. Wen screamed on the phone to a
general, who, under Beijing’s pecking order, does not
answer to the prime minister. “I don’t care what you do,”
Mr. Wen reportedly yelled, his face drenched in rain. “I
just want 100,000 people saved. This is my order.”

Then, according to the story, he slammed the phone down.

Huang Yuanxi contributed research from Beijing.

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