I will not go overboard with the praise for Wen's handling of the earthquake tragedy. He has certainly done a good job in rallying people to respond to the crisis and he has shown a genuinely caring attitude and heart. I will wait, however, before I become one of his supporters on Facebook. Let's see how he, and the Party, deal with the longer-term issues of why school buildings performed so badly, and whether the relative openness of the media coverage continues (it seems not), and how re-building proceeds in coming months and years. I will give Wen this much, however (much to the delight of my Chinese nationalist friends) he has proven to be a more effective leader in a crisis situation than George W. Bush - but, then again, that's not saying much...
The larger, and to me more interesting, comparison is that between Wen and Mao. What would Mao have done under the circumstances of the Sichuan earthquake? It is, of course, impossible to know. But let's consider how he actually responded when confronted with the emerging disaster of the Great Leap Forward in 1959. Instead of accepting that his ideology had created famine and starvation, he resisted reality and fought back politically, sacking the man who dared stand up to him, Defense Minister Peng Dehuai. The lives of millions of people mattered less to him than his own ideological "correctness" and his own political position. It took two more horrible years after the Lushan Plenum in 1959 before the country could begin to drag itself up from the man-made horror of the Great Leap. Some leaders, most notably Deng, recognized what had happened and they embraced a more pragmatic orientation to avoid such calamities in the future. But not Mao. He attacked again, in 1966, against the pragmatists, fomenting the Cultural Revolution and casting the country into ten years of political chaos.
One conclusion to draw from this sorry history is that Mao did not "serve the people," as the famous slogan has it. He served himself and his ideology, much to the people's harm.
Wen is not like this. His presence in the quake zone has communicated his commitment to responding to the immediate needs of the people there. Yes, it is a propaganda coup for the central government, but that does not mean that Wen is not genuinely involved and moved by the disaster. He obviously is. The pictures of him next to the destroyed school, crouching down and peering into a pit where child victims lay, are truly heart-rending. I'm sure his heart was rent. And his being there put pressure on local officials to attend to the rescue and recovery work. He has done a good job.
Wen's truer enactment of "serve the people" makes sense in the context of post-Mao China (or should we, at this point, be saying post-post-Mao China?). The regime's legitimacy has shifted away from ideologyl to performance, away from Marxist rationalizations to the delivery of a better standard of living. Indeed, I would call it "Mencian legitimacy," after the sensibility of Mencius, who continually demanded of rulers that they attend to the needs of the people. Ironically, "serve the people," captures the Mencian spirit.
Wen, in particular, has presented himself as a man of the people, a leader who cares for the poor and powerless. It was he who went to a train station in January, during the snow crisis, to publicly apologize. He plays the role of a modern Mencian well.
Mencian legitimacy is not necessarily a democratic legitimacy. As in the PRC now, it may not require electoral competition for executive and legislative power. An "enlightened" authoritarianism, which was the standard in Mencius' own time, may be able to respond to popular needs, as now seems to be the case in Sichuan. Indeed, a focused and centralized political authority may be able to act more quickly and effectively, at least for a time, than a slower and sloppier democratic system. It seems certain that, thus far, the response of Wen and the central government has bolstered regime legitimacy in the eyes of many, many Chinese citizens. The leadership is seen to be doing the right thing, and doing it with real care and conviction. Mencian legitimacy can strengthen authoritarianism.
But Mencian legitimacy can also work against authoritarianism (just as it can work against democratically-elected leaders who fail the test of serving the people, as is arguably now the case with Bush). What happens if the grief of the people turns into anger against officials? Might the people then demand that they should have a greater role in determining who their leaders should be? If, as Mencius says, "Heaven sees through the eyes of the people, and Heaven hears through the ears of the people," then what should happen if the people claim a greater role in the selection of political leaders? Heaven could come between the Party and the people. I wonder what Wen would do then?