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Sizing up China's premier

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrives for his annual press conference in Beijing on Monday.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrives for his annual press conference in Beijing on Monday.
  • Wen, 69, is the smiling face of the Chinese government in contrast to President Hu
  • Under Wen's watch, economy has grown rapidly, millions of farmers out of poverty
  • Wen has pledged to restore migrant workers' unpaid wages, narrow wealth gap
  • A geologist by training, Wen worked his way up the party and government ladder
  • China
  • Beijing
  • Chinese Politics
  • Wen Jiabao

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- When the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, closes its annual session in Beijing on Monday, Premier Wen Jiabao will have had the rare chance to speak with the press -- and for the public to size up their leader.

How is he perceived?

Wen, 69, is the smiling face of the Chinese government, a stark contrast to the buttoned down President Hu Jintao.

Since becoming premier in 2003, he has built a reputation as a man of the people focused on helping the poor and comforting the distressed.

One year he shared a meal of dumplings with the coal miners below ground during the traditional Chinese New Year holiday. Another year he spent the same holiday in with AIDS patients in a local village.

He drew much praise for his quick response when he flew to Sichuan in the hours after the deadly earthquake in 2008. "This is Grandpa Wen," he tearfully told children buried in the rubble of a primary school, "Children, you've got to hold on!"

His action got notice overseas. "Mr. Wen's conduct is striking because it's what we expect of politicians, not dictators," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that time.

With his slight frame and quick smiles, Wen looks more like a professor, speaking AT A measured pace and often sprinkling his statements with ancient Chinese poems and idioms.

China has much to brag about under his watch. The economy has grown rapidly, and millions of farmers have been lifted out of poverty. China has sent men to space and is building its aircraft carrier.

"On his watch China hosted the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai Expo last year," said David Kelly, researcher at the University of Technology Sydney. "He will also be credited for his initiatives to promote social justice and social security."

Wen has pledged to restore migrant workers' unpaid wages, end illegal land seizures and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

But so far, experts say, Wen has only turned in a checkered record.

A geologist by training, Wen spent 14 years in the hardscrabble province of Gansu before he moved to Beijing and worked his way up the party and government bureaucracies.

Although he is ranked third in the Communist Party hierarchy, observers say he lacks the charisma and the constituency to push his own ideas within the leadership.

Wen's detractors wonder if he is either without influence in his own party or is merely the compliant "good cop" to the Communist Party's sometimes "bad cop" behavior.

"Some say he is slightly hypocritical," Kelly said. "Chinese writer Yu Jie wrote a book calling him the 'world's greatest actor'."

As premier, experts say, Wen is part of a government that has no hesitation in locking up dissidents, like Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, the author of a pro-democracy petition Charter 08, which calls for social and political change.

With the protest raging in the Middle East, analysts believe the Communist Party is once again rolling out the premier to project the image of a caring leader.

On the eve of the parliament session, Wen visited the Complaints Bureau, the state agency which deals with people's grievances. He reportedly listened to some petitioners and pledged to help resolve the complaints they raised.

Around the same time, human rights groups say Chinese police rounded up a number of activists and lawyers and tightened censorship of the internet and the foreign media. Observers say these may be Beijing's preemptive measures to avert a "jasmine revolution" akin to what has occurred in the Middle East.

Over the years, the premier has talked openly about the need for reform. It is crucial that political reform will follow socioeconomic changes, he said.

In his nearly two-hour speech at the opening of the NPC session last week, Wen made no clear reference to political reform, talking instead about the need to "strengthen social control" in order to maintain "social stability."

A few times last year, the premier spoke of the need for political reforms. In a rare interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria in New York, he acknowledged that "the people's wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible."

"In spite of some resistance," he added, "I will advance political restructuring within the realm of my capabilities."

Going beyond the words, analysts have their theories about Wen's actions.

"Wen personally believes that China needs to have meaningful political reform to deal with challenges China is facing now," said Yawei Liu, director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. "He might have some support from other leaders at the top, but certainly there is no consensus. He is also doing this for record, to distinguish him from other leaders and to build popular support."

Liu does not think Wen is merely "acting." "Regardless of any absence of follow-up, talking about it is better than remaining silent on the issue," Liu said. "He may be the loneliest leader in China now."