By Jun Zhang.
The first session of the 12th National People’s Congress opened in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2013, with Premier Wen Jiabao delivering the government Work Report. It was the 10th and final time he had made such an address. The two-hour long report ended with prolonged applause from the 3,000 representatives. When Wen turned around and bowed to the presidium of the Congress, applause broke out again. Appearing emotional, he bowed to the audience three times and again to his colleagues on the presidium. The ovation that ensued reverberated throughout the hall and was again prolonged.
The representatives had every reason to applaud. In the days that followed, representatives deliberated on the Work Report and they would judge the work of the government last year. That would present no problem, but how will they grade the government for its work over the past 10 years? This is certain to be a matter of contention outside and inside the hall. The truth is, since the beginning of last year, people from all walks of life have been talking about Premier Wen and have come to different conclusions.
Wen’s supporters say that deep down he is democratic, and when he said that “no force can hold back this move towards democracy”, he meant that free and just elections should be held in China. History will judge him generously. “I think he really wanted to step up political reform, and yet he could not overcome the opposition inside the institution,” says He Weifang, Professor of Law at Peking University. “Even if it was just an oral promise, it was still highly significant.”
Still, there are the detractors, who depict Wen as someone who made promises but did not honour them, and someone with few achievements during his tenure. There are those who say that in political and economic terms his achievements as Premier were negligible. Furthermore, they say, his noisy democratic appeal simply lacked weight.
In the economic sphere, his most contentious policy was the 4 trillion yuan stimulus plan of 2008. Many mainstream Chinese economists criticized this, saying it was a typical overreaction, one that caused the serious over-issuance of currency. According to statistics, the M2-GDP ratio has risen sharply, to 1.9 percent, since 2008.
But Wen did not yield. On September 11 last year, in the opening speech of the Summer Davos Forum in Tianjin, he first responded to the criticism of the stimulus package China adopted in 2008 in the midst of the international financial crisis, and defended the 4 trillion yuan plan. In the Work Report this time he reiterated that the decision was correct.
More critical commentators say that his down-at-home image has simply been a cover for his wife and children to amass a huge fortune. In autumn last year The New York Times published a report detailing the assets of Wen Jiabao’s family, insinuating that they had used their position to accumulate wealth. Willy Lam, a Hong Kong based expert on Chinese politics, says: “He is a tragic figure, and will popularly be remembered as a man doing his best to protect the shoots of political reform and liberalization – or at least orally.”
A few days ago, the Southern Weekly published a long story headlined “Special edition for the two Congresses on Premier Wen’s final bow—looking back at Wen Jiabao’s career”. At the end of the article it says “Wen Jiabao affirmed his ambition in his childhood to follow in the steps of his idol Zhou Enlai and studied at Nankai Middle School. In 1968 he left campus and threw himself into front-line geological work in Gansu province. From being a mineral technician he made his way up the ladder to eventually become Premier. After 10 years’ service when the 2013 Congresses close, Wen Jiabao will finally put down his heavy load. Acting on a promise to his mother, Wen did many things for his country, of which there can be no doubt; but it will be the future that is his ultimate judge.”
Let it be remembered that in the Great Hall of the People when the fifth session of the 11th National People’s Congress closed in March last year, Wen told reporters: “Because of the limits of my capability, and various factors including the institution, there is much to desire in terms of my work. As the head of the highest national administration, I bear responsibility for all economic and social problems during my service. For that I am sorry. I always feel that many things are not finished and many things could have been better. I have many regrets.” He was apparently referring to economic and political reform. The phrase “A decade without reform” has become popular, and the urge to carry on reform seems to be widely held. It is an arduous task, but one that Li Keqiang and his government will take on.
Professor Jun ZHANG is the Director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University.