Monday, March 2, 2009
Questions for Grandpa Wen
Beijing: He cooks for the poor, he dodges shoes, and now Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao can claim to be the first Chinese premier to ever chat with the proletariat over the Internet.
The widely popular premier spent two hours online Saturday afternoon answering a selection of questions from among 90,000 that were sent in via the websites of the central government and the state-run Xinhua news agency. Wen admitted he was nervous to be taking questions online for the first time, but said he would follow his mother's advice and “be honest and use (his) heart to talk.”
Over the course of the lengthy exchange, the 66-year-old warned netizens that the global economic crisis had not yet hit the bottom, and sympathized with the plight of China's 20 million-plus jobless migrant labourers. Wen also acknowledged that China needed to make a “major move” against official corruption, and explained a planned overhaul to the country's health care system that aims to provide universal health care to all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens by 2011.
He also answered a more light-hearted question about his reputation as a cook (earned after he cooked a New Year's meal of sautéed pork and peppers for earthquake survivors in Sichuan province), and briefly tackled last month's incident during which he had a shoe thrown his way by a protestor during a speech he gave at Cambridge University.
“I acted very calmly. What I thought first was the national dignity, people's dignity and to maintain the friendship between China and Britain,” he said, explaining his stony response to the flying footwear. “Even if something dangerous was hurled at me, I will not move at all”
(You can read Xinhua's account of Wen's entire chat here.)
The online appearance comes just days before Wen is to deliver a report to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, and highlighted the growing power of netizens in China, which now is the world's largest online community, with more than 300 million people now connected to the World Wide Web. Though many websites – particularly those related to sensitive topics such as the so-called “three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square) – are routinely censored here, the Internet has nonetheless become a powerful force for change, with netizens in one recent case forcing an investigation into the suspicious death of a prisoner in police custody in Yunnan province. Online public opinion polls have also helped push official corruption, an issue the country's leadership would likely prefer to avoid discussing, to the top of the agenda ahead of this week's annual meeting of the NPC.
“I always think that people has the right to know what the government is thinking and doing, and voice their criticism of government policy,” Wen said during the online question-and-answer session, adding that he spends half an hour to an hour online every day.
Wen's earthy style has made him an extremely rare phenomenon in Chinese politics – someone who rose up through the thickly bureaucratic ranks of the Communist Party who can actually claim genuine popularity. When I was in Sichuan last week talking to survivors of last year's catastrophic earthquake, the people I met expressed genuine affection for the man who played a front-line role in the relief efforts last spring and has made a total of seven trips to the region since the May 12 disaster. There was a noticeable difference in how people referred to Wen, and how they spoke of Chinese President Hu Jintao (who has also visited the earthquake zone, and did a web chat of his own last year). “Grandpa Wen,” as many Chinese call him, was someone they felt they knew. Hu was someone they had seen once.
Wen has long walked a very careful line between populism and his position in the Party. One question that wasn't asked in the online discussion – and one that would have been extremely timely given the looming 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – is what Wen was doing in the photograph above. That's him, just to the right of Zhao Ziyang, then the general-secretary of the Communist Party, as Zhao addresses the students on Tiananmen Square in May 1989, days before the protests were forcefully quashed. Zhao, who was sympathetic to the students' calls for reform, was purged after the crackdown and placed under house arrest until his death in 2005. Wen somehow survived and kept rising through the official ranks.
Given that Wen's webchat was conducted via official websites, it's unsurprising that no one asked him about the events of May and June 1989 (or at least that no such questions were allowed through).
But since Wen told his virtual questioners that he spends time every day surfing the web, I'll pose my own questions here, in case his clicking ever takes him over to Points East.
Dear Mr. Premier,
- What was going through your mind that day as you accompanied Zhao Ziyang to address the students?
- What do you think, 20 years later, of the Tiananmen Mothers call for the Chinese government to “break the taboo” around Tiananmen and finally name all those killed and to punish those responsible?
- How will you mark the 20th anniversary on June 4th of this year?
Mr. Wen, I respectfully welcome you to leave your responses in the comments section below. Or e-mail me, if that's more your style.
Take your mother's advice about this. As you said yourself, the people - and I mean those in China, not necessarily readers here - have the right to know what their government is thinking and doing.