Grandpa Wen Jiabao Does Very, Very Well
The New York Times‘ revelation that the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao controls assets worth as much as $2.7 billion does not, at first glance, seem to be that big of a story. After all, earlier this summer Bloomberg reported that Vice President Xi Jinping- soon to be anointed as China’s next head of state- was also fabulously wealthy, and people in both China and abroad reacted with a collective shrug. Just about any political figure in China with a national reputation has cashed in handsomely, something that everyone in the country knows.
What has been interesting, however, was Wen’s reaction. According to this LA Times report, the Prime Minister’s family has retained legal representation and has begun to refute the story, and the Times‘ site has been blocked in China for the first time in several years. This reaction has contrasted with the usual Chinese approach, which is to release a terse statement accusing the foreign media of interference or, better yet, of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. What makes this case any different?
First, Wen Jiabao isn’t just an ordinary Chinese politician. While President Hu Jintao has the charisma of a garden gnome, Wen is one of the few Chinese leaders who generates genuine public affection. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Wen rushed to the scene and, referring to himself famously as Grandpa Wen, exhorted the area’s children to persevere. Even my most cynical Chinese friends, whose regard the Communist Party resembled mine toward stinky tofu, were moved by the Prime Minister’s grace. The foreign media has always appreciated Wen’s candor in describing China’s economy as “imbalanced” as well as stressing the need for political reform. And Wen’s past association with the reformist Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, the only one of China’s top leaders to oppose the Tiananmen Square crackdown, further cements his image as a relative liberal in China’s political scene.
Wen isn’t a soulless technocrat like Hu Jintao. He isn’t the privileged son of a Party legend, like Xi Jinping. He isn’t an ambitious, attention-seeking mandarin like Bo Xilai. His public persona conveys dignity, modesty, urbanity, and grace- all qualities the Chinese once associated with the beloved Zhou Enlai. Being just another greedy functionary in the increasingly lucrative Chinese kleptocracy doesn’t mesh with Wen’s carefully constructed image.
In Wen’s defense, his family members were more responsible for the asset grab than he was, as the Times‘ article so skillfully lays out. But the story serves as yet another example of how easily politicians enrich themselves in China, and how divisions between the “public” and “private” sector are largely meaningless. Wen Jiabao’s legacy may be that, for all of his supposed intentions, he was unable to change this basic calculus.