A popular leader steps down in China after a decade at the helm, leaving a contested legacy
Li Keqiang’s appointment as China’s next Premier on Friday brought to an end the decade-long term of Wen Jiabao. A rare figure among China’s top leadership who cultivated an image of a populist leader, the former Premier is one of China’s most well-liked leaders. In 2008, Mr. Wen famously wept with the victims of the devastating Sichuan earthquake, when he met with families, standing on the rubble.
While he was seen by many as “a man of the people” and often referred to affectionately by younger Chinese as “Grandpa Wen,” he has faced some recent criticism for his handling of the economy, particularly following the financial crisis when China unveiled a massive 4 trillion Yuan ($643 billion) stimulus package which some analysts said exacerbated severe imbalances in the economy.
Mr. Wen has defended his economic policies in recent speeches, pointing out that China’s decisive response avoided job losses and allowed the country to weather the financial crisis.
His 10 year term oversaw an unprecedented rise in China’s global influence, with the country becoming the world’s second-largest economy. His administration devoted greater attention, and resources, to bringing development to rural China and western provinces that have lagged behind the prosperous east. Moves to abolish agricultural taxes and to substantially widen the coverage of health insurance in rural areas were among its flagship policy decisions.
Yet despite the many achievements of the past decade, one Chinese journalist The Hindu spoke to said he was struck by the “tragic figure” Mr. Wen has cast in recent public appearances, hinting at the recent criticism he has faced. During a visit to a residential community in Beijing last month, one of his last public outings, Mr. Wen said, “I feel sorry and often blame myself for the imperfections in the government’s work, and I hope you can forgive me for that.”
Mr. Wen has also faced criticism over his family’s wealth, particularly in the wake of a New York Times report last year that detailed that his relatives had amassed a $2.7 billion fortune. He is known to have privately expressed regret that he did not prevent his children and wife from limiting their domestic business interests.
He has, however, remained a popular figure among progressive sections in China for being the only top leader who has frequently stressed the need for political reforms. Although efforts to push measures largely stalled, Mr. Wen’s utterances were seen as at least allowing Chinese journalists an opportunity to more strongly push for an issue that was earlier seen as too sensitive to even mention.
Mr. Wen was the face of the party’s liberal Right, particularly after he took on the former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was expelled from the CPC last year and cultivated a following with a resurgent “New Left” through his neo-Maoist policies.
In rare public criticism of a fellow Politburo member, Mr. Wen last year hit out at Mr. Bo, who is now awaiting trial, for violating the CPC’s consensus, reached in 1978 at its third plenum, to draw a line over Mao’s Cultural Revolution and to push forward reforms. “Any practice we take must be based on experience and lessons we have gained from history and serve the people’s interest,” Mr. Wen said about Mr. Bo’s controversial policies. “I believe the people fully recognise this point,” he said.
He said then he would leave office “with the courage to face history.” “There are people who will appreciate what I have done but there are also people who will criticise me,” he said. “Ultimately, history will have the final say.”