The People's Technocrat 

As China's legislature anoints the next generation of leaders, the country's new economic czar may be the one who will finally begin to bridge the gap between rich and poor





On new year's eve, Wen Jiabao, China's prime minister-designate, had a special request. He wished to pay a visit to Chinese coal miners. Hours before the Chinese New Year rang in, the country's new economic czar climbed aboard an underground tram and descended 2,400 feet into the mine shaft to meet the workers below. For two hours Wen sat on the rail track chatting with the miners, sharing a meal and assuring the men that the contribution of China's old-line industries to the country's economic development would not be forgotten. "I have always wanted to spend Spring Festival with mineworkers in a coal pit," said Wen, 60, between dumplings. "Today, my wish has finally come true."

From the echoes coming out of the opening of China's National People's Congress last week, Wen's down-to-earth touch may be just what the party is looking for. The two-week legislative session is expected to approve the next generation of top government officials, including the official transfer of the presidency from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao.

Wen, for his part, is expected to replace Zhu Rongji in the No. 3 spot. But the talk in the conference hallways turned less on the allocation of positions--almost all of which were determined well in advance of the heavily scripted event--than on the party's new push to boost the economic prospects of the country's rural and urban poor. Of 10 initiatives unveiled by the State Development Planning Commission, seven are aimed at social-support programs, like creating job opportunities, raising rural incomes and improving living standards in the country's remote corners.

And for good reason: some 30 million people have been laid off from state enterprises in the past five years, and there is rising resentment among the country's 800 million peasants whose stagnant incomes are leaving them farther and farther behind.

Whereas the outgoing Chinese leadership will be remembered for their massive investments in China's coastal provinces, the new leadership--sometimes referred to as the Fourth Generation--seems to have their eye on the development of China's hinterland. And, fortunately for --Wen, his past portfolios--which have included agriculture, western development, state-owned enterprise reform and financial restructuring--have given him a close look at the challenges at hand.

"He's not like the Shanghai guys, enamored with a high-tech orientation toward development. Wen did his time in the rough areas," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "He has a visceral understanding of the countryside."

A geologist by training, Wen spent his early career in the hardscrabble inland province of Gansu. It wasn't until a Beijing official came to the western outpost on a work inspection in the early 1980s that Wen received wider notice. Wen's presentation to the visiting dignitaries--made entirely without notes--left them deeply impressed. (His command of Gansu's topography earned him the nickname the "living map.") So much so that Wen soon found himself lifted into the rough-and- tumble of Beijing politics.

By 1986, having proved himself to be a superb administrator, he was tapped to be director of the Central Committee's General Office, a post that opens the doors--and file cabinets--of the top party leadership. "Wen will be the first premier who was once in charge of the Central Committee," says Minxin Pei, a China scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He controlled the paper flows, so he knows the bureaucracy."

Which may also explain how he's survived China's power politics. Two of Wen's early mentors--Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang--were purged in the late 1980s for their more empathetic stance toward the pro-democracy student protesters. Indeed, Wen was at Zhao's side when he famously raised a bullhorn to plead with the students to empty Tiananmen Square before the tanks rolled in. Yet today Wen is one of the only former officials close to Zhao--who has been under house arrest since 1989--to escape the subsequent purge of his associates. How did he do it? "His technical expertise in so many areas makes him indispensable," says Cheng Li, a Sinologist at Hamilton College in New York. "He's a classic technocrat--brainy but not political. He doesn't belong to anyone."

But he'll need more than a mastery of facts and figures to fill Zhu's shoes. During his tenure as prime minister, "Boss Zhu" was a tireless voice for reform and is widely credited for lowering Chinese trade barriers, jump-starting the sell-off of state enterprises, streamlining the bureaucracy and ultimately securing China's membership in the WTO. But Zhu would be the first to admit he's left Wen much to be done. When addressing the nearly 3,000 delegates at the Parliament's opening session last week, Zhu painted a somber picture of the underlying quality of China's breakneck economic performance, suggesting that ignoring the country's growing number of have-nots could be profoundly dangerous.

"For many years, the leadership felt the need to foster urban growth, and let the rural areas take care of themselves," says Andrew Rothman, a Shanghai-based China strategist. But with the rise of Wen and Hu, who also got his early start in Gansu province, many believe China's farmers and workers may have better allies in the new leadership. "They're focusing on employment, rather than just saying growth, growth, growth," says a Western diplomat. "It's not just the GDP numbers game. They're paying attention to the people who are being left behind."

By all accounts, no one is expecting the new leadership to chart a dramatically different course soon. "You shouldn't expect big-bang changes," says Rothman. "The new team was part of the old team, and you can't expect them to have a radically different view." Nor is Wen in any position to run against the grain. Compared with other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, he has banked more on expertise than political patronage to move through the ranks, so he lacks the network of supporters others possess. Says one official, "So far, Wen hasn't hoisted a banner for himself, and he will not do so until he is fully in power." But power in the People's Republic is as much about personal

In 1998, China experienced some of its worst flooding in decades. It fell to Wen to manage the swollen rivers. As the floodwaters rose near one town, Wen faced a terrible choice. If he dynamited the dam, homes would be washed away and lives lost. But if the dam collapsed from the rising tide, the devastation would be even worse. At the last moment, Wen decided not to detonate, and miraculously, the water crested and the dam held. Says Sinologist Pei, "He was decisive, hardworking, and his political stock went up overnight." As prime minister, his political influence will rest in how he meets the next crisis--when, not if, it comes. 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney