Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, gave his last NPC press conference in his official capacity. His term of office, and political career, is winding down. Next year another, most likely Li Keqiang, will be in the seat, taking questions from the press...
The western press picked up on Wen's comments about the necessity for political reform:
Mr. Wen’s sole display of passion was reserved for the issue of political reform, a cause he said he would promote to his last breath. His advocacy has rendered him increasingly isolated within a top leadership that, if anything, has more stubbornly resisted tinkering with the system.
In what seemed a message to the next generation of Chinese leaders, he said that political reform had reached a crucial stage, and that stalling or retreating from change “offers no way out.”
“We must press ahead with both economic structural reform and political structural reform, in particular reform in the leadership system of our party and country,” he said. Otherwise, “the gains we have made in this area will be lost, new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved and such a historic tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”
Among those problems, he pointedly noted, are increases in corruption and income disparity and a decline in the government’s credibility.
Although Wen may well be passionate about this idea, I must say we have heard all this before, and nothing has really come of it. He has made comments over the years that suggest a possibility for political change, but, then, he either does not assert himself to get the job done, or he simply does not have sufficient power to do so. Either way, and whatever his best intentions, the PRC political system continues to be impervious even to relatively modest political liberalization.
Interestingly, Wen also made direct mention of the Bo Xilai/Wang Lijun scandal. Although the Financial Times's headline seems a bit overdone - Wen attacks party conservatives - it is unusual for backroom political issues to be br ought to light in such a public manner:
In a rare example of open criticism among senior Communist party officials, Mr Wen took direct aim at Mr Bo who has been tarnished by the revelation that his police chief and key ally Wang Lijun tried to defect to the US last month. Mr Wang is in custody and his case is under investigation.
But the "attack" is muted. Wen simply says: “The current [Chongqing] party committee and government of Chongqing must seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons from this incident...” Not really a major take down of Bo and Wang..
It's too bad Wen doesn't push harder. Let's assume he want some kind of genuine political reform. Let's say he is sympathetic to what seems be a more accomodating approach to dealing with political problems that emerged in Wukan, Guangdong province. Let's say he really is concerned about countering the corruption that corrodes public institutions. Why hasn't he used his position to press harder for such goals?
He would find some support in Confucius, who is often presented as a defender of authority and hierarchy but who actually was quite will to challenge the powers that be if they were pressing society in the wrong direction, as here in Analects 11.17:
The head of the Ji family was richer than the duke of Zhou had been, and yet Qiu collected his imposts for him, and increased his wealth. The Master said, "He [Qiu] is no disciple of mine. My little children, beat the drum and assail him."
If public officials - in this case Qiu - are facilitating policies that spread injustice and inhumanity, they should be attacked, and one supposes removed from their positions.
Too bad Wen is not as assertive as Confucius....
UPDATE: Maybe Wen was channeling his inner Confucius. It now turns out that Bo Xilai has been removed from his posts in Chongqing. Wow. We'll see if he hangs on to his Politburo seat.... breaking....