The new Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, offered his vision today of a kinder, gentler government, focusing on the country's growing problems of unemployment and economic distress.
The 60-year-old former geologist referred to himself as a common man, quoted poetry and spoke movingly about his past during an almost two-hour, televised news conference. His comments set a very different tone from that of his predecessor, former premier Zhu Rongji, who was known for his temper and ruled by fear.
"Most people think I am mild-mannered, but at the same time I am self-confident, hold my own ground and dare to take responsibility," Wen said .
He listed a series of problems facing the country, citing stagnant income for farmers and bad management in the state-owned sector. Unemployment is increasing, he said, a rising gap exists between China's cities, and the countryside, and state-owned banks hold billions of dollars in bad loans. China's problems are daunting, he said, but "one prospers in worries and hardships and perishes in ease and comfort."
The news conference was the first time most citizens had a glimpse of the new premier. The event came at the end of the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature. The Congress, a virtual rubber stamp of decisions made by the Communist Party, elected Wen and also chose Hu Jintao as president, replacing Jiang Zemin.
Hu and Wen have distinguished themselves from their predecessors by embracing a social agenda that promises to care for the poor rather than just promoting the nation's newly established middle class.
The folksy look at Wen's personal life was a signal that the Communist Party leadership wanted to portray Wen as someone who cares about the downtrodden and is ready to do something about their plight.
"My childhood was spent in the turmoil of war," Wen said in opening remarks. "My home was burned down by the flames of war and so was the primary school which my grandfather built with his own hands."
Wen offered no solutions to the problems he listed and did not discuss political reform, which an increasing number of Chinese say is the next critical reform facing China in its movement toward political and social modernity.
While the news conference took place just hours after President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, there was little focus on the Iraqi crisis. Only at the end did questions touch on Iraq and then superficially.
"The arrow is already placed on the bow," Wen said, indicating that war is near. "But as long as there is a sliver of hope, we won't give up our efforts for a peaceful solution."