China’s new premier is best known for going down a mine shaft on the eve of the Chinese New Year to eat dumplings with coal miners.
That memorable public relations stunt stands out in a successful career that Wen Jiabao built by working through the vast Communist bureaucracy to his promotion Sunday as the top manager of one of the world’s most promising and problem-laden economies.
During his early days in office, people will be making comparisons between Wen and his predecessor, Zhu Rongji, who stepped down last weekend along with President Jiang Zemin in the smoothest transfer of power in the more than five decades of Communist rule.
Zhu was a towering figure who used his forceful personality to drive his country’s once Marxist economy through wrenching reforms. In comparison, Wen, 60, a geologist by training, is a gentle consensus-builder who owes his political longevity to his ability to appear as understated and amicable as possible.
But at his first nationally televised news conference as premier today, Wen painted himself as a confident and caring leader not afraid of his nation’s great expectations.
“It is generally believed that I’m quite mild-tempered,” he said in the cavernous Great Hall of the People. “But I am also someone with principle, with determination, with the confidence and courage to take up responsibility.”
Among the most pressing issues for the new administration is keeping the world’s sixth-largest economy humming, fixing an ailing banking system and building a social safety net for the growing ranks of unemployed state workers and rural poor. Little is known about how Wen plans to tackle these tasks.
Wen promised to make rural and urban development “a priority of priorities” and to bridge the country’s widening wealth gap. He also talked about the urgency to fight corruption.
By way of introducing himself to a nation that barely knows him and to underscore his connection to the rural poor, Wen mentioned his childhood in war-torn China in a family of rural educators and his years of service in the impoverished inland.
“I spent much of my early career in a very difficult place. That experience let me know keenly how hard life could be,” Wen said. “But that experience filled me with confidence. Be it one man, one nationality, one country, so long as they bear hardships, they will eventually reach the summit.”
Wen’s experience has taught him that the political system tends to reward those who know better than to make waves.
His first boss in the central government, party chief Hu Yaobang, was ousted in 1987 because he was deemed too liberal. His second boss, party chief Zhao Ziyang, lost his job because he went on a tearful visit to striking students at Tiananmen Square shortly before the army moved in to crush the protesters in 1989.
Zhao was purged and has been under house arrest since. Wen, who served as Zhao’s chief aide and accompanied him to the square, escaped unscathed and continued on his fast track toward greater power.
His survival is a tribute to his ability to please all sides by recanting his mistakes without rattling his superiors.
His loyalty, fairness and attention to detail impressed Jiang, the party’s incoming general secretary, in 1989.
In 1998, Wen moved up to deputy premier, working under Zhu to supervise two key areas: agricultural and banking reforms.
Those who didn’t take well to Zhu’s table-pounding style see Wen as a welcome change.
“Maybe he will be more effective than Zhu because it’s more important for a premier to listen to different views,” said Mao Yushi, who runs a research institute in Beijing. “Zhu was not as good in that regard.”
Most Chinese got their first close look at Wen during devastating floods in 1998. State media repeatedly showed him directing rescue efforts while treading through muddy waters and shouting through bullhorns in the rain.
His down-to-earth style is no surprise to officials in remote Gansu province, where he worked for about 14 years.
“His experience there taught him the spirit of plain living and hard struggle,” said Cheng Yoqing, a Gansu delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial legislature, which endorsed the new crop of leaders before closing its annual sessions today. “He’s willing to go to the very bottom of society and put the interest of the people in his heart.”
Newly anointed President Hu Jintao also cut his political teeth in the impoverished inland province. The two men’s shared experience in the Chinese interior appears to have influenced their decision to pay extra attention to the plight of the poor and to seek balanced development in a country facing a widening gap in wealth between those living inland and those on the coast.
That accounts for Wen’s trek down the mine shaft this year and Hu’s journey to the frozen Mongolian steppes around the same time. Both trips were designed to deliver the message that the new administration will care about the forgotten masses.
Though Westerners might miss the old premier’s flamboyance, many Chinese put a greater premium on Wen’s ability to deliver the goods.
“Personality is not so important to us,” said Zhao Xiao, an economist at Beijing University. “I’d rather forget what he says but watch what he does.”