Li Datong: Wen Jiabao: The Verdict of History

Roundup: Media's Take

[Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian.]

Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, is a different kind of Chinese politician. Most of his peers in the current generation of communist leaders share an administrative style so lacking in individuality and flair as to make them appear almost cloned from a laboratory. The result is that the public tends, in general, to ignore them. After all, it’s hard to take notice of a near-anonymous bureaucrat who seems incapable of displaying a particle of genuine character to his constituents. Wen Jiabao, at least since 2007, has departed from this norm and thus begun to set himself apart....

It was Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s three decades of reform after 1979, who in effect was responsible for deciding the ideological and political character of the market economy he had overseen. Deng’s answer was that markets were neither “capitalist” nor “socialist”, but a universal phenomenon that transcended ideological divisions - and thus a tool available to any country, regardless of its political persuasion.
This judgment was based less on theoretical principle than on Deng’s characteristic pragmatism. This, after all, was the man who famously remarked: “black cat, white cat, I don’t care what colour it is as long as it catches mice”.

But even for Deng - a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding generation - pragmatism had its limits. He retained a profound mistrust of democratic systems, and often stressed that China would never adopt a western-style separation of powers.

The fact that China’s reformer-in-chief Deng Xiaoping, despite his boldness in starting an economical revolution, maintained a consistent opposition to any democratic opening helps to illustrate just how innovative Wen Jiabao’s words in March 2007 were. In including “democracy” among his list of “shared values”, Wen seemed to be abandoning a position long sanctioned at the highest levels of Chinese government. In the eyes of China’s liberal intellectuals, his words were read as subversive of a deep political orthodoxy.

At the same time, the conventional wisdom about the inner workings of China’s political system is that any expression of view that seems to vary from the official line is either the sole prerogative of or bound to be sanctioned by the president. When one of his senior colleagues utters a “different” opinion, the assumption is that the subordinate is elaborating the leader’s judgment. In the wake of Wen’s press conference, the assumption was that behind it lay the shadow of China’s president, Hu Jintao.

But it has become apparent that Wen Jiabao was not “channelling” Hu Jintao. The president may have made some notional references to the value of “democracy”, but neither he nor other members of the politburo elite have echoed Wen’s sentiments. In fact, at least two have explicitly restated China’s refusal of any separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary....
Read entire article at openDemocracy

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