China's Wen leaves divided legacy

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on March 5, 2013.

Story highlights

  • Premier Wen Jiabao steps down after 10th, final 'state of union' Tuesday
  • Wen announced China's 2013 growth target as 7.5%
  • Wen: 7.5% GDP growth is goal "we will have to work hard to attain"
  • In 2012, China's economy expanded 7.8%, slowest annual pace in 13 years

For the last decade Premier Wen Jiabao has been a constant presence in every Chinese home as state broadcasters beamed images of him treading the global stage, comforting disaster victims and bringing steamed dumplings to impoverished coal miners.

But on Tuesday this most polarising of Chinese politicians literally bowed out from public life after delivering his 10th and final annual "state of the union" address and announcing an economic growth target this year of 7.5 per cent.

As he delivered the customary annual government work report to the opening session of China's ceremonial parliament, Mr Wen warned that, in contrast to most of his time in office, this year's growth target of 7.5 per cent was a "goal we will have to work hard to attain".

He also acknowledged a "growing conflict between downward pressure on economic growth and excess production capacity".

The annual gross domestic product target this year is the same as that set by Beijing for 2012. But unlike previous years, when growth always exceeded the official figure by a wide margin, the economy expanded by just 7.8 per cent last year, its slowest annual pace in 13 years.

If the economy were to grow by exactly 7.5 per cent this year, it would be the worst performance since 1990. However, it would no longer be a problem for the man who likes to be called "Grandpa Wen".

By the time the National People's Congress wraps up on March 17, China's premier for the next decade, Li Keqiang, will have been formally appointed and Mr Wen will disappear into the obscurity and secrecy that surrounds most retired Communist leaders.

Mr Wen appeared emotional as he bowed three times to the assembled delegates and once to his colleagues on the stage behind him in the Great Hall of the People.

"He's a tragic figure who will be remembered for trying as best he could to preserve the seeds of political reform and liberalisation, at least on a rhetorical level," says Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "It's clear that he didn't have the power to do much about it and he even failed to set an example of being an honest official; failed to stop his children and cronies from using their political connections to make a big killing in the market."

Central to Mr Wen's legacy is an unresolved debate that has raged for much of the last decade over whether or not he truly believes in radical political reforms to China's one-party system and even the eventual introduction of democracy to China.

His supporters are adamant that Mr Wen is a democrat at heart and that he is talking about free and fair elections for China when he says the "trend towards democracy cannot be held back by any force" -- or when he insists that "without successful political structural reform it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost".

But his numerous critics revile him as a cynic whose man-of-the-people persona is cover for the billions of dollars amassed by his wife and children.

A detailed report on the Wen family's shareholdings published in the New York Times late last year suggested the premier's relatives had earned billions as a result of their proximity to power. Lawyers for the family denied the allegations.

Nevertheless, the report seriously undermined his credibility in the closing stages of a decade-long tenure that many already regarded as ineffectual. "Those intellectuals who believe in Wen and his slogans are extremely boring and even shameless," said Mo Zhixu, a prominent Chinese columnist and former student activist during the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. "His achievements [as premier] are negligible when it comes to political or economic reform and his loud cries for democracy have no significance whatsoever."

As he gave his final address, Mr Wen seemed to have abandoned his former bold demands and called instead for a less ambitious goal.

"We should govern the country on the basis of the law and fully respect the authority of the constitution and laws," he said, implying that this was not current practice. He added that China should also "establish institutions to end the excessive concentration of power and lack of checks on power".

To his detractors, this was more of the same from "China's best actor".

But others suggested Mr Wen would be treated more kindly by history. "I think he really wanted to implement political reforms but he just was not able to overcome opposition within the system," said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University and advocate of judicial reform. "In the end lip service is still an important service."