China’s premier delivers a swan song in Thailand

November 22, 2012

BEIJING — Wen Jiaobao would like China to forget about him.

That may sound strange after decades of propaganda building him up as the populist leader of his generation whose love for China’s people was only outweighed by his supposed humility in serving them.

But Wen, China’s outgoing premier, has always had a flair for the dramatic. Now spending his last few months as China’s second most powerful leader under the cloud of scandal that the government has tried hard to repress, Wen told a gathering of overseas Chinese in Thailand: “I hope people including overseas Chinese forget about me. But I will never forget about the motherland and its people and will never forget the tens of millions of overseas Chinese.”

His latest comments appeared to be a swan song of sorts for his decade-long reign as China’s premier. Wen’s speech appeared to have been delivered on Tuesday in Bangkok but only began spreading widely online in China Thursday because of a blackout on its coverage by Chinese state media.

Foreign leaders, scholars and even party insiders have long puzzled over Wen’s true intentions and will likely continue to struggle in coming years over his legacy.

He has been the most outspoken about the need for reform in China among its current leadership, but he has also been highly ineffective in carrying out such dramatic changes.

Wen has cultivated a folksy populist image of being a humble man of the people — propagating an image of himself as “Grandpa Wen,” as some now call him. But his family’s long-rumored use of his political connections to amass a huge fortune were confirmed last month in an explosive report by the New York Times that garnered him much unwanted international scrutiny and caused China to censor the entire Times website.

“What Wen says and does are two very different things,” said Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian and political commentator in Beijing. “There’s two theories, he wants to change things but he can’t. Or he doesn’t really want to change and is simply finding excuses. In either case, I think in reality, he doesn’t really have the power of his position.”

Wen seemed to touch on this point in his speech in Bangkok, complaining cryptically, “I always felt there are a lot of things that haven’t been finished.”

And he also seemed to defend himself against the allegations of corruption, quoting from a 2nd century B.C. poet Qu Yuan to make the point that he would be willing to “die nine times” if it meant the truth could be pursued and that “even I have to die for my own innocence, I die with honesty and integrity.”

The fact that Wen waited until he was overseas to give his first extensive comments on his retirement and the scandal that threatens his legacy suggested he may have encountered opposition from other party factions in speaking out while in China.

His comments were not carried by any of China’s major state-run media — a rare coordinated news blackout for newspapers and state television that are regularly required to splash top leaders’ comments on its front pages no matter how banal.

In 2010, Wen’s words were given similar treatment after he gave a rare one-on-one interview with CNN and talked about how necessary political reform was for China’s future.

On Chinese microblogs, where his speech received widespread distribution Thursday, some bloggers responded with support. “Premier is no easy job, really not easy, he should have a good rest,” said one tweet.

Negative comments, however, seemed equally plentiful.

“Oscar Life Achievement Award,” read one particularly sarcastic tweet.

“Obviously, it is not enough just making a fortune silently,” read another. “One also need to be able to make a speech, to act and to look up the starry sky.”

Liu Liu contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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