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Grandpa Wen a deserving 'people's premier'
Publication Date : 08-03-2013
It is not difficult to like China's "Grandpa Wen" at first sight.
The gentle, earnest-looking Wen Jiabao, who will step down after 10 years as Premier when the National People's Congress (NPC) closes next weekend, has a knack for connecting with the Chinese masses.
Endearing photos are aplenty of the apron-clad Premier stir-frying food for a family during a visit to a quake-hit zone in Sichuan province in 2009, or of him playing basketball with little children.
All these have helped the diminutive leader foster a larger-than- life public persona that stands out among his stiff Communist Party peers.
When he unveiled a 4 trillion yuan (US$637 billion) stimulus package in early 2009 to save China from the worst financial maelstrom to hit the world in decades, he almost seemed like a saviour.
Such a massive plan was hailed as a masterstroke to restore calm not just in China - where tens of millions lost their jobs amid plunging Chinese exports - but also around the world.
Wen, 70, even knew exactly what to say at the right time: "Confidence is the most important thing, more important than gold or currency."
So it's no wonder that when I first began reporting in China in early 2009 with a focus on its economy under Wen's charge, I became one of his fans.
But now four years later, it is harder to like him as much.
In hindsight, the stimulus proved to be the key culprit of asset bubbles which sparked record housing prices while strengthening state-owned monopolies' grip on the world's No. 2 economy.
State banks' 10 trillion yuan lending binge mainly benefited local officials and state enterprises.
The people - whom the purportedly reform-minded Wen cared the most about - suffered the most. Mom-and-pop businesses were starved of credit; farmers rioted as corrupt officials grabbed their land to sell to developers; and so-called "ant tribes" of young Chinese crammed in slums could not afford to buy homes even with their parents' savings.
Wen said he sympathised with their plight.
"I understand well the people's feelings," he told netizens during a February 2010 online chat that covered issues like housing, inflation and "dividing the 'cake' more fairly among rich and poor".
"I also have tasted 'ant tribe' living," he added, noting that he grew up in a family of five who all squeezed into a 9 sq m space.
But where was the action, I wondered then - and even now.
For all his property and lending curbs and restructuring drive, the commander-in-chief of China's economy still seemed powerless.
Housing woes, corruption and income gaps continued to top the list of concerns in nationwide polls every February since the 2008 crisis.Critics heaped derisory labels like China's "best actor" on Mr Wen for pretending to care while doing little.
True, analysts acknowledge that problems like officials' greed and abuse of power are too rampant and deep-rooted for one man to take on. Some say Wen was also politically constrained from taking tough reforms by vested state interests and wealthy princeling families.
But many people - including myself - wished and believed he could have done more. There could have been more rules and checks on what projects local officials could use stimulus funds for, more credit access for private enterprises, and an earlier, stronger push for a nation-wide property tax.
Yet, while many have now become disenchanted with his reform promises, Wen has no doubt left an indelible mark on the PM job on another front.
One is hard-pressed to find another leader who has the personality of a "people's premier".
Six months after becoming Premier in 2003, Wen was photographed holding an umbrella and trudging through rain-drenched yellow earth in workman's boots to meet flood victims in western Shaanxi province. Over the years, he almost unfailingly visited other disaster areas to meet victims.
Even if all this was a public relations act, it was a hard one to sustain so consistently for so long.
Up till his last days in office, Wen continued to go into the streets to talk to ordinary folk about their welfare.
Despite a mixed report card, Wen has succeeded in reaching out to the masses and, in the process, become China's most recognisable and personable leader in the past decade.
Incoming Premier Li Keqiang is well respected for his detailed perusal of policy papers to devise better plans for China's future.
But when it comes to qin ming, or being close to the people, it may not be easy for him to fill his predecessor's mud-caked boots.