IN BEIJING Villagers in the hard-hit drought areas of Anhui and Shandong provinces celebrating the Chinese New Year this month got a surprise visit from Premier Wen Jiabao, who donned an apron to cook meatballs and egg soup in one family's home and dumplings in another.
On a bitterly cold day last month, Wen had made an even more unusual stop, at Beijing's petitioning office, where disgruntled citizens from the countryside go to seek redress for perceived injustices, such as illegal land seizures or unpaid wages. It was the first time in the communist state's 61-year history that a top official had visited the office.
Wen's regular outings to mingle with average folks - particularly the rural poor and the dispossessed - have made the 68-year-old the most popular member of the ruling communist hierarchy, earning him the nickname "Grandpa Wen" and helping to break the mold of the stodgy, faceless and impersonal communist bureaucrat.
But nearing the end of his premiership, Wen, who has long ties in the Communist Party and was allied with such past reformers as the late Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, is also quietly building an image as a crusader for more openness and accountability within the country's tightly closed, authoritarian political system.
In the past six months, Wen has made at least three calls for reform in China, saying the country needs to open its political system and adhere to the rule of law to complement its economic gains. In Beijing last month, he told the startled petitioners, "We are the people's government. And our power is vested upon us by the people."
His talk about the need for political change has led some to believe that Wen is, at heart, a reformer. And although he might be locked in a system that is resistant to change, they say that with his second five-year term ending in March 2013, the premier might be feeling freer to express his views.
Some said Wen's constant travels to the countryside put him in closer touch than other central government leaders with ordinary people's complaints and problems - including the inefficiencies of the administrative system.
"Because Wen will retire very soon, he is trying to promote political reform in China," said Zhang Lifan, a historian who has written about the Communist Party and its leaders. "As premier, he sees the conflict between Chinese society and its political system."
Cheng Li, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he agrees that Wen might be feeling more emboldened now to speak out publicly because he is leaving his position soon and has nothing to lose. "He is very solid in terms of his political standing because he does not care," Li said. Wen "is also frustrated by the lack of serious support from his colleagues," the researcher said.
Wen also at least gives the party leadership the appearance of understanding common concerns, at a time when many reports about local party officials involve issues of corruption or scandal. "The political establishment may not be comfortable with him, but they see some utility from that kind of openness," Li said.
Not everyone agrees. Some outspoken critics include dissident writer Yu Jie, who last year published a book in Hong Kong titled "China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao." Yu says that Wen's remarks about reform and his populist persona are for show, to give a more humane face to the authoritarian regime.
Wen has been vague in his public comments about the sort of reform he envisions for China. But Li said that he spoke with Wen as part of a small group in 2006 and that the premier was very precise about what he wanted to see - the rule of law, public accountability, media freedom, and inter-party democracy leading to genuine, regular elections in which the Communist Party would be forced to compete with others for votes.
Li also quoted Wen as saying that a Chinese democracy would have its own characteristics, which might not look the same as Western multiparty democracy.
Li and others said that although Wen might now be marginalized in the country's ruling Politburo Standing Committee, he still has some influential allies in the party, particularly within its older liberal wing. That reformist segment of the party was previously associated with Zhu Rongji, a popular premier who left office in 2003, and Zhao and Hu, who were party general secretaries in the 1980s. Hu's death in 1989 became a catalyst for the pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Wen, as head of the General Office of the Communist Party's Central Committee, accompanied Zhao to see the protesting students at Tiananmen Square. Zhao was sympathetic toward the demonstrators, and a photo of a stern-faced Wen standing behind Zhao at the square has become iconic for those who believe Wen is also a true reformer.
After the People's Liberation Army crushed the protests, Zhao was purged from the party and placed under house arrest until his death. But Wen survived.
"He experienced the golden years of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, who advocated for reform, especially political reform," and was deeply influenced by them, said Wu Jiaxiang, a scholar and influential blogger who worked with Wen for three years in the 1980s in the General Office.
As premier, Wen has adopted a similar man-of-the-people style as his early mentors. He is typically the first and highest-level leader to travel to scenes of natural disasters and is often seen in casual clothes cuddling children who have lost parents or visiting victims in hospitals. He also meets regularly and shakes hands with HIV/AIDS sufferers, helping break a national taboo in a country where AIDS victims are often stigmatized.
His Jan. 24 visit to the Beijing petition office was seen as extraordinary for a senior Chinese leader. He mingled with the petitioners and urged officials to handle citizen complaints promptly, seriously and in a personal way.
The practice of petitioning dates back centuries in China. But more often than not, petitioners are punished when their complaints are pushed back to local officials.
Liu Yazhi, 53, from the Ningxia region in the north, started petitioning the government in 2007 after her son was killed, but the court did not order the killers to pay what she considered reasonable compensation. Last year, she was thrown into prison for six months of "education through labor."
Liu said that when she saw the news that Wen had visited petitioners, "I even couldn't believe my eyes. Is this true?" she said. "I was so excited. . . . Wen's action encouraged me to continue petitioning."
Her hope proved fleeting, however. The country's supreme court told her to give up, and local officials in Ningxia warned that she risked being locked in an asylum if she persisted.
"Wen Jiabao's action gave me some new hope," she said. "But my hope was broken very soon."
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.