A series of bold pronouncements by the premier in recent weeks has been backed by editorials in the state-run media, leaving little doubt that Wen and the reformist faction in the party have gained the upper hand, at least for now, in the tussle over Bo that seems part of a broader ideological struggle over China’s future.
It was only last year that Wen appeared to have been marginalized on the reform front after he gave an interview to Time magazine containing remarks on the issue that were largely censored by the Chinese media. Yet he has remained perhaps the country’s best known and most popular leader besides Bo himself, regularly traveling to the scene of earthquake sites and mining disasters, often photographed casually dressed and comforting victims, earning him the nickname “Grandpa Wen.”
Now, with only months before a party meeting that will install a new Chinese president and prime minister, Wen has resumed the reform mantra — with an added sense of urgency.
Wen has often been a lonely voice for reform in an entrenched, collective leadership resistant to change. Critics have questioned whether he was sincerely committed to liberalizing China or just saying what was deemed popular. One critic, dissident writer Yu Jie, dubbed Wen “China’s Best Actor” in the title of a book.
But Chinese analysts and overseas experts now agree that Wen has deftly used the scandal surrounding Bo to discredit his alternative governing philosophy in Chongqing. Bo’s methods, known as the “Chongqing model,” included a heavy role for the state, a redistribution of wealth, an emphasis on broad social welfare policies over growth led by the private sector, and, in practice, a heavy-handed authoritarianism, including a crackdown on crime that often trampled on the rule of law.
Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said, “I think there’s no doubt that Wen Jiabao is using this particular moment in time to make a last push for his reform agenda, and that encompasses both political reform and economic reform.”
Bo’s approach in Chongqing, she said, “was clearly antithetical to the approach Wen Jiabao has advocated.”
‘A turning point’
At a party work meeting March 26, Wen said new rules were imminent on the transparency of official accounts, including more disclosure of how public money is spent and a ban on government funds for cigarettes, alcohol and lavish parties. He also called corruption the country’s biggest problem and said that unless the party faced up to it, “the nature of political power could change.”