A Young Wen Jiabao
A Young Wen Jiabao with mentor Zhao Ziyang, meeting students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo from www.abc.net.au abc.net.au

The Cultural Revolution, a ten-year period of political and social turmoil in China, was launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 to cleanse Chinese society of 'insidious' bourgeois, right-wing, traditional elements. Students at first formed quasi-militant groups to target Mao's political enemies, but eventually schools were shuttered, intellectuals were attacked and people were banished to distant regions of the country to become farmers, which at the time was seen as the most morally pure occupation.

When the period reached its symbolic conclusion in 1976 with the arrest of the 'Gang of Four,' a group of radical leftists originally backed by Mao, it had become impossible to elide the damage done to China's economy and society. The Cultural Revolution tore apart families, subjected the innocent to political and class bigotry, and threatened to push the confused country into total anarchy and ruin.

No one, not even the leaders who run China today, was unscathed. Some -- like Bo Xilai, the neo-Maoist former party head of Chongqing and who was recently purged from the Politburo and implicated in widespread corruption -- emerged hard-hearted, with an insatiable ambition for power. Others, such as China's Premier, Wen Jiabao, resolved to remedy Chinese injustice.

Last November, Wen spoke publically to students from Nankai High School, which he attended in his youth, about how the Cultural Revolution changed his life. His father, an intellectual and a teacher, was punished for being an educator by being sent to raise pigs in miserable conditions on the rural outskirts of Tianjin. The poverty, turmoil and famine left an indelible imprint on my young soul, Wen said. I realized only science, truth-seeking, democracy and hard work can save China.

From outward appearances, Wen fits in well with all the other suit-and-tie, glasses-and-comb-over technocrats that run China. But in many important ways, he has broken the mold.

Unlike most of his peers, Wen is outspoken and frank; there are few subjects he won't comment on. Wen has taken to championing the troubles of China's less fortunate -- poor farmers, migrant workers, the sick and elderly, laborers and factory workers. He has publicly lamented the country's environmental degradation, called out his fellow party members for corruption, argued for further transparency and oversight in China's political system, and said that China would carry out further reforms to build greater democracy in the country.

Wen gives China a human face, said Cheng Li, Director of Research at the Brookings Institution's John L. Thornton Center and a prominent scholar on internal Chinese politics. Wen Jiabao gives hope to China's liberal intellectuals.

But the conflict between what Wen hopes will happen in China and the country's actual progress toward these goals has led others to call the Premier a showman without real substance. For example, Yu Jie, a Chinese author and dissident now residing in the U.S., published a book in 2010 called China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao; in it, he described Wen's offers of reform and political change as a disingenuous performance.

So while Wen's association with populist issues has enamored many to this politician with the soft-spoken mannerisms and the language of a poet, others are asking: Does he really foreshadow the future of Chinese politics or is he just a lonely figurehead at the top? Put another way, what will his legacy be besides grand words and promises?

The Tao of Wen

Judging Wen's ten-year tenure as Premier by the metric of whether life in China has improved during his time in power, a decidedly mixed picture emerges. China's GDP grew between 2003 and 2010 at an average annual rate of 10.9 percent. In most cities, the average middle-income Chinese household owns a TV, a refrigerator and a washing machine. Car ownership in China is expected to reach over 86 million in 2012, meaning one in five families will have an automobile. More than half of the country is now urbanized.

Yet, these economic improvements cannot mask -- and in fact sometimes exacerbated -- some of the worst economic and social conditions in the country. Since Wen has been in power, China's Gini ratio, which measures wealth inequality, has risen from 0.40 to 0.42; in the 1980s, it was less than 0.30. Transparency International, an NGO specializing in rating levels of corruption, gave China a score of 3.6 out of 10 in 2011, up from 3.5 in 2001 -- hardly an improvement. The government now spends more on internal security than on the military. And Sun Liping, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, estimates that incidents of social unrest in the country doubled between 2006 and 2011.

Of course, Wen does not deserve all of the blame for these disappointing numbers. Unlike the Maoist period when one man ruled China, Wen is part of an oligarchy of leaders, largely split into two factions: liberal political reformists who favor sustainable growth, and reactionary elements that want rapid development under centralized power and wealth.

Brookings' Li says that while Wen has worked to make the ruling groups' decisions and actions more transparent and responsive to the people, he only represents a small portion of the leadership. He cannot implement many policies because of resistance from other factions.

Nonetheless, even facing opposition to his positions, Wen deserves credit for some notable achievements. China's agricultural tax was abolished in 2006, alleviating economic pressures on hundreds of millions of poor farmers. During his tenure, the government created a health insurance system for people in rural areas that now covers almost 700 million Chinese people. In 2011, access to potable water was extended to nearly 64 million additional residents in the countryside. And this year, the government has allocated $27.2 billion to build low-income housing for migrant workers and set up programs that allow their children to attend public schools.

But Wen is also pragmatic and self-protective. Indeed, he experienced first-hand what happens to Chinese leaders that push too hard for change. Two of his mentors from the 1980s, former General Secretaries of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were purged from positions of power because more conservative elements of the Communist Party were threatened by their support of political liberalization and reforms.

The fact that Wen has avoided the misfortune that befell his predecessors -- and has even championed the rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang -- shows that the man known as 'Grandpa Wen' (a nickname the Chinese people have given him in both respect and jest) is a capable party operator who has been able to maintain pressure on his colleagues for reform without alienating them.

Speaking Openly

When Wen became China's head of government in 2003, like past premiers, he focused on setting macroeconomic policies. Indeed, although Wen became the first high-ranking party leader to speak out about controlling the AIDS epidemic in China in 2004, it wasn't until four years later that his unorthodox side began to show consistently.

For example, during debilitating snowstorms in 2008, the Premier arrived in person at train stations to calm the nerves of passengers who had been waiting for days to return home on Chinese New Year. And a year later, Wen welcomed new state councilors with four phrases from China's Classics of Poetry (dating back to the 7th Century BCE): Speak all you know, speak without any reservations, speakers are without fault, listeners heed their warnings (???????????????????). Western observers believe this advice was meant to incentivize government officials to be open and truthful and avoid blind ingratiation to superiors.

During a televised CNN interview with author and political scientist Fareed Zakaria in September 2008, Wen was asked about his talks with students in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests. He responded that Tiananmen taught him that while moving ahead with the economic reforms, we [China] also need to advance political reforms. As our development is comprehensive in nature, our reform should also be comprehensive.

Wen told Zakaria that China needed to gradually improve the democratic election system, so that state power will truly belong to the people, and state power will be used to serve the people. For American viewers those words echoed closely Abraham Lincoln's view of government as being 'by the people' and 'for the people.' However, people in China didn't get to see that interview, because it was blacked out in the country.

Speaking with Zakaria again in September 2010, Wen said that in spite of resistance in China, he would advance within the realm of my capabilities political restructuring. I will like to tell you the following two sentences to reinforce my view on this point. I will not fall in spite of the strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield until the last day of my life.

Just a month earlier, Wen had said that without further political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring.

At the time, government censors deleted their own Premier's statements from official media. However, Wen's comments later were endorsed by a group of respected retired party elders who had served in various high level government positions in the past.

Leaving a Legacy

Wen only has 9 months left in his term of office, and in his waning days in power he has stepped up his campaign to reform Chinese government. He's called on Chinese leaders to fight corruption -- he astonishingly admitted that the rate of corruption in China was actually increasing -- or the party would perish. And he said that the government intended to break up the monopoly of China's powerful state-owned enterprises, which dominate the economy, monopolize capital and, some say, stifle innovation. And travelling in Stockholm, the Premier told foreign and Chinese press that sustainable growth was the answer to his country's future development, which he says will not come at the expense of people's standard of living and the environment.

Analysts expect that Wen's recent statements are in fact attempts to influence his successor. By publicizing his policy priorities, Wen is hoping to make sure that they cannot be ignored in the future.

But China changes very rapidly; virtually from year to year new events emerge, disappear and are quickly forgotten. The urgency that drove Wen's generation to build a new China, epitomized by the 'opening and reform' era under Deng Xiaoping, to erase the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, is long gone -- replaced by the economic and social benefits that the activists of that period helped deliver.

And for some of the country's youth, the period of the Cultural Revolution has some attraction; it is seen, quite inaccurately, as a nostalgic era of moral purity compared to modern moral decay. Some Chinese leaders have tried to capitalize on this misguided romanticism to maintain centralized party control. Wen instead has insisted that China must avoid repeating the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution.

These comments have helped to defeat the more radical elements in the party like the humiliated Bo Xilai, meaning Wen and other liberal reformers may now temporarily have the upper hand. But that, too, can change quickly. After all, no other Chinese reformers among the leadership have a high profile the way Wen does. None of them have a personality like Wen, Li said. The Chinese may soon discover that they miss someone like him.