Wen Jiabao: the verdict of history

China’s elite is preparing for the succession of power in 2012. But there is still time for the current generation to shape its legacy. In particular, says Li Datong, prime minister Wen Jiabao is an increasingly bold and outspoken figure in China’s political establishment.
Li Datong
20 October 2010

Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, is a different kind of Chinese politician. Most of his peers in the current generation of communist leaders share an administrative style so lacking in individuality and flair as to make them appear almost cloned from a laboratory. The result is that the public tends, in general, to ignore them. After all, it’s hard to take notice of a near-anonymous bureaucrat who seems incapable of displaying a particle of genuine character to his constituents. Wen Jiabao, at least since 2007, has departed from this norm and thus begun to set himself apart.

During his first term as prime minister, Wen was the model of a cautious and hard-working technocrat with no trace of real personality. But at the start of his second term, the manner of his public address - and, as or even more important, the content of the message he sought to convey - underwent a subtle but notable change.

The shift was heralded at a press conference in March 2007, when Wen announced that “science, democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights are not solely the domain of capitalism. Rather, they are shared values pursued by humanity over the long course of history, the products of a common civilisation.” Such a statement, when uttered by China’s second-in-command, is deeply significant. Its longer-term political context explains why, and may further indicate what Wen Jiabao’s personal projection is about.

The road from pragmatism

It was Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s three decades of reform after 1979, who in effect was responsible for deciding the ideological and political character of the market economy he had overseen. Deng’s answer was that markets were neither “capitalist” nor “socialist”, but a universal phenomenon that transcended ideological divisions - and thus a tool available to any country, regardless of its political persuasion.
This judgment was based less on theoretical principle than on Deng’s characteristic pragmatism. This, after all, was the man who famously remarked: “black cat, white cat, I don’t care what colour it is as long as it catches mice”.

But even for Deng - a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding generation - pragmatism had its limits. He retained a profound mistrust of democratic systems, and often stressed that China would never adopt a western-style separation of powers.

The fact that China’s reformer-in-chief Deng Xiaoping, despite his boldness in starting an economical revolution, maintained a consistent opposition to any democratic opening helps to illustrate just how innovative Wen Jiabao’s words in March 2007 were. In including “democracy” among his list of “shared values”, Wen seemed to be abandoning a position long sanctioned at the highest levels of Chinese government. In the eyes of China’s liberal intellectuals, his words were read as subversive of a deep political orthodoxy.

At the same time, the conventional wisdom about the inner workings of China’s political system is that any expression of view that seems to vary from the official line is either the sole prerogative of or bound to be sanctioned by the president. When one of his senior colleagues utters a “different” opinion, the assumption is that the subordinate is elaborating the leader’s judgment. In the wake of Wen’s press conference, the assumption was that behind it lay the shadow of China’s president, Hu Jintao.

But it has become apparent that Wen Jiabao was not “channelling” Hu Jintao. The president may have made some notional references to the value of “democracy”, but neither he nor other members of the politburo elite have echoed Wen’s sentiments. In fact, at least two have explicitly restated China’s refusal of any separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary.

Wen Jiabao has been undeterred, and has continued to push the boundaries of official discourse - for example in saying that “people must be allowed to live with dignity”, which he defines as follows:

“First, that every citizen enjoys the rights and freedoms granted by the constitution. Everyone is equal before the eyes of the law. Second, that the sole and ultimate goal of developing a country is to satisfy the growing material and cultural needs of its people. Third, that development of society take development of the individual as its precondition. We must help people develop freely and fully, allowing their talents and abilities to compete, and to flourish.”

Wen has also insisted that restricting the power of the state is the key to political reform; that China must build a fair and just society; and that the rule of law should transcend political power. In 2009, on the eve of Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary as a “special economic zone”, he described political reform as vital if China was to avoid a developmental “dead end”. In 2010, he wrote a eulogy to the reformer Hu Yaobang - whose death in April 1989 helped to catalyse the Tiananmen demonstrations - and published it under his own name. In short, Wen has become a dissenting - and increasingly individual - figure in China’s political establishment.

The triangulating premier

Wen’s interventions have made him the focus of vigorous public discussion. The writer Yu Jie’s book Wen Jiabao: China’s Greatest Actor portrays Wen as little more than a hollow dealer of political “spin”. Against this, traditional leftists accuse him of being the bourgeoisie’s man in the party establishment, a modern-day incarnation of another political reformer of the 1980s, Zhao Ziyang (who was deposed following his role in the Tiananmen Square events). But Wen also has his fair share of defenders.

It’s worth noting at this point a difference of view in China over the meaning of “political reform”. The Chinese authorities tend to understand this in a very narrow way - in terms of administrative measures that improve the CCP’s “vitality” and facilitate its “self-improvement”. Any “reform” aimed at other than strengthening the party constitutes the “undermining of state power”, and must be ruthlessly suppressed.

But for China’s intellectuals, political reform requires the party to return the reins of power to society - to the people, to an independent judiciary, to freedoms of speech. If this causes the downfall of the party, so be it - that would be a natural consequence of the democratic process, not the end of the world.

In this light, Wen Jiabao has since 2007 been “triangulating” between these opposing views - though with a definite bias towards the latter. But why has he chosen to take this route? And how can he get away with it?

The legacy factor

To answer the second question first, I believe Wen’s confidence in his own position is the important thing. China’s political-selection process has come a long way from the time when party elders would simply handpick their successors, often on the basis of political connections and favours. Now, the politburo’s political legitimacy derives from elections held by China’s parliament, the national people’s congress (NPC). By the same token, members who fall from inner favour have some protection against sudden deposition.

The CCP central-committee meeting in October 2010 which promoted Xi Jinping to become one of the vice-chairs of China’s central military commission, and thus likely successor to Hu Jintao, reflects the fact that the decisive political processes in China are still intra-party. But the degree of competition and accountability now involved nonetheless represent an important step forward, bringing with them at least the inklings of genuine democracy.

To answer the first question, Wen has chosen to carve out this particular path because he has given up hope of seeing any substantive progress on political reform during his remaining time in office; and that as a result, he is concerned to focus his energies in a way that echoes many emperors and mandarins before him: on shaping the verdict of posterity.

Wen is without doubt the most learned and best-informed of China’s nine-member politburo standing committee. His actions and statements suggest that he has come to see himself as an elder statesman who believes in universal values. But he is also a Chinese politician who seeks to anticipate the historian’s pen. Chiang Kai-Shek kept a diary for most of his life to ensure that history would record his achievements; Mao Zedong refused to allow his speeches or conversations to be recorded lest they be used against him. By contrast, the tearful words of Zhao Ziyang to hunger-striking students in Tiananmen was an ultimate choice to stand on the side of history, and let others talk. “We’re old”, he proclaimed. “These things are out of our hands.”

Now it’s Wen Jiabao’s turn. Though he continued to promote the cause of political reform in advance of the central-committee meeting in Beijing, the prospect of achieving substantial change in his remaining two years in office is meagre. Wen’s real hope is that future generations will remember him as a politician of integrity, not someone forced to wear a disguise. This means he is likely to be even more candid before he retires in 2012.

China’s ambitions no longer depend on a single political leader - whether Hu Jintao or Xi Jingping. In order to ensure progress, the country’s ruling elite must arrive at the shared conclusion that the road they have been travelling is now blocked, and a change of direction is needed. This political-reform transition will require both guiding principles and a great accumulation of social capital, and is bound to be lengthy and difficult. Wen Jiabao may one day be credited as a pioneer in moving China towards it. But that is for history to judge.

This article was translated by Oliver Lough

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData