China’s Wen enters final push for soft-edged agenda

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING, March 5 (BestGrowthStock) – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on
Friday showed the soft-edged populism that has drawn both
public devotees and political naysayers as he seeks to tame the
nation’s wild ride of industrial expansion.

The 67-year-old premier is entering his final years in
charge of the world’s third-biggest economy, and in his annual
report to the Communist-run parliament, Wen said he would focus
on narrowing social divisions and spreading wealth.

“We will not only make ‘the pie’ of social wealth bigger by
developing the economy, but also distribute it well on the
basis of a rational income distribution system,” Wen said.

When Wen bows out in early 2013, he will have spent a
decade at the pinnacle of the one-Party government.

Analysts said he had left a marked but mixed imprint on
policy, showing how stubbornly the ship of Chinese politics
resists big turns, even if the captain shouts orders.

Wen’s predecessor as premier, Zhu Rongji, seemed to relish
lambasting officials, baiting reporters and making bold policy
gambles, sometimes successful, sometimes a mess.

Wen has cast himself as a humble servant of the people,
conciliatory, tearful in the face of their suffering and with a
relentless capacity for new tasks — perhaps too many.

“Zhu Rongji had his iron fist and Wen Jiabao has had his
tears, but in the end both men have found neither way works
magic,” said Zheng Yongnian, director of the National
University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, which focuses
on China.

Wen’s achievements can be measured in the abolition of
hated taxes on poor farmers, rising rural incomes and the
makings of a broad social welfare net, Zheng said.

Under Wen’s watch, narrowing the urban-rural income gap has
been a key objective. However, studies of wealth distribution
indicate that inequalities have budged little, or even
worsened.

Wen has also faced frustrations with his hopes for coaxing
growth away from cheap exports, big state projects and
polluting factories.

“You can be popular by being soft. But eventually all
policies have to be enforced by bureaucrats and special
interests, and then crying doesn’t work,” said Zheng.

As time runs out for Wen to build his legacy, his
impatience for change may show more sharply, before he makes
way for his likely successor, Li Keqiang, now one of four
vice-premiers.

Wen’s administration may have missed a golden opportunity
to push through contentious changes, said Tom Orlik, an
economist with research firm Stone & McCarthy in Beijing.

“I think the government is going to regret its lack of
ambition in pushing forward reforms in the good times,” he
said. “They had several years of very rapid growth supported by
extremely strong foreign demand in the run-up to the crisis,
and in retrospect that was an opportunity to push through
difficult domestic reforms.”

TEARS, POETRY AND THE INTERNET

Wen is certainly popular among ordinary people.

His displays of sympathy for their woes stand against the
Communist Party’s ranks of mostly wooden leaders, often shown
on television giving slogan-loaded speeches.

A geologist by training, Wen spent 14 years in poor, far
northwest Gansu province, rising through the Party as a loyal
and ever-prepared aide to officials.

His reputation for unassuming service helped him survive
1989, when his boss, then Party chief Zhao Ziyang, was purged
after the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Since becoming premier in 2003, Wen has spent Lunar New
Year holidays down a coal mine and in an AIDS-stricken village,
often wearing his trademark frayed blue jacket.

“Grandpa Wen” — as local media affectionately refer to him
— drew a torrent of admiring support in 2008, when he
clambered over buildings shattered by southwest China’s
devastating earthquake, tearfully comforting weeping children
and hollering into a bullhorn to drive on rescuers.

He has also held online question-and-answer sessions with
Chinese Internet users, giving them a rare chance for contact
— however controlled — with their unelected leader.

Wen told the last online session, days before parliament
opened its annual full session, that he sympathised with
people’s worries about income inequality, climbing house
prices, graduate unemployment, and residential registration
rules that frustrate long-term migration to and between cities.

“I’ll spare nothing in exerting myself on my duties until I
die,” said Wen, a typical flourish from a man who rarely gives
a news conference without reciting poetry.

“If China had a real democratic election today, Wen would
probably win hands down,” said Li Zhiying, a political rights
activist in Beijing who focuses on farmers’ complaints.

CONSTRAINTS

But Wen’s public displays also appear to be a mark of the
constraint he faces.

Wen’s broader goals to cut ministries and wean China’s
economic growth from feverish industrial expansion have made
halting progress, facing bureaucratic resistance and the sheer
demands of keeping up job and revenue growth.

In his report to parliament, Wen said he faced a tough time
curbing industries with excess capacity.

In private, officials and princelings — the children of
incumbent, retired or late leaders — sometimes scoff at Wen’s
shows of sentimentality, seen as unbecoming from a state boss.

“It’s because he’s constrained in policy, constrained by
the needs of the system that he’s a part of, that he wants to
come out more and speak of his hopes,” said Chen Yongmiao, an
independent researcher in Beijing, who runs his own institute
that studies China’s “post-reform” politics.

Investing Tools
(Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch; Editing by Ken
Wills and Benjamin Kang Lim)

China’s Wen enters final push for soft-edged agenda