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The Rise and Rise of China's Mr Tears

June 12, 2008

By Maochun Yu
Asia Times
June 11, 2008

The well-coordinated, massive relief and propaganda efforts organized
by the central government are called by some international observers
the most pronounced phenomenon emerging from China's recent natural
devastations.

But the government in Beijing has always been keen on organizing
massive projects such as the one the world witnessed following the
January snowstorms and now the Sichuan quake, as Beijing is one of
the few governments in the world that can, and is willing to, utilize
vast human and material resources on such a scale.

The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) ability to mobilize the entire
nation showcase the efficacy and power of the CCP, which has
maintained a monopoly on national and local governance and social
movement. In fact, in the annals of the CCP government's mass
movements to mobilize the nation that either caused catastrophe -
such as the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s that led to the
famine killing at least 30 million Chinese - or alleviate the impacts
of natural disasters, this current national campaign, officially
billed as "Resist the Quake, Redress the Disaster" (kangzhen jiuzai)
movement, is less intense when compared to the mass relief and
propaganda campaigns of the past.

For example, the 1975 Yangtze River flood that killed at least 85,000
people [1], the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that took at least 242,000
lives [2], or even the more recent 1998 "Resist the Flood, Redress
the Disaster" campaign of 1998 had relief and propaganda campaigns on
a much larger scale. This is because the government would very much
like to replace the quake from the people's conscience with the grand
party that is much higher on the leadership's agenda list: namely,
the 2008 Summer Olympics.

What is singularly unique, however, is the sudden rise in popularity
of an unlikely star who has quickly become a national phenomenon
arising from the rubbles of the quake: the boyish-looking 66-year-old
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Within hours of the quake, far before the
mounting death toll became apparent and confirmed, Wen flew to the
epicenter to console the quake-ravaged villagers.

Since day one of the quake, he has been seen daily in the print and
electronic news outlets across China as the chief coordinator of
relief and propaganda campaign. The crowds in cities and the
countryside across the nation went wild when they saw on
government-controlled TV stations that Wen refused medical treatment
for bruises caused by a fall in the rubbles of a collapsed building
because there were living souls still buried under that very
building. Internet users flooded chat rooms with praises for Wen's
moving and consoling gesture toward a group of crying orphans in a
village. To the people of China, Wen has become known by many as "the
People's Premier" or "Grandpa Wen".

A consummate bureaucrat and technocrat, Wen was trained as a
geologist in college. He has been a Communist official since 1965
when he started out as a minor Party functionary in the geological
survey community in the Northwestern province of Gansu, where he
slowly but steadily rose within the provincial Party hierarchy.

In the early 1980s, then CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang discovered
Wen Jiabao and gave him a "helicopter ride" straight up from the
rustic Gansu province to the Communist Central Committee in Beijing
as the deputy in the Party's Central Office. When Hu Yaobang was
purged in 1987 for failing to effectively suppress intellectual
discontents, Wen Jiabao survived the purge and went on to serve as
the top assistant to China's next Communist Party general secretary,
Zhao Ziyang, whose tenure covered the tumultuous 1989 Tiananmen
Square pro-democracy movement.

The most dramatic moment in Wen's political life came when Zhao
decided to oppose the decision to massacre the student protesters in
Tiananmen Square. When Zhao showed sympathy for the protesters' cause
by visiting the square personally in an attempt to persuade the
protesters to leave the square and avoid bloodshed, Wen Jiabao went
along. Zhao was promptly purged and remained under house arrest for
over 15 years until his death in January 2005.

The image of Wen accompanying his agonized and crying boss in
Tiananmen Square before the infamous massacre would have doomed his
political career under normal circumstances; miraculously, though,
Wen survived once again. He continued to flourish within the Party
central hierarchy and went on to work as a vice premier under general
secretary Jiang Zemin. In 2003, after Jiang faded, Hu Jintao became
the Communist Party's Fourth Generation Core Leader as the Party's
general secretary, and Wen Jiabao became the premier of China and the
third-highest ranked Communist Party official. Wen has held that
position ever since.

This career pattern makes Wen Jiabao a most unique official in China:
He is the only Standing Committee member of the ruling Politburo,
throughout the history of the Communist Party since its founding in
1921, to have served four general secretaries: Hu Yaobang, Zhao
Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Two of these four have been purged
and become virtually non-persons in China's deadly cycles of power struggle.

Wen Jiabao has accomplished this extraordinary feat primarily by
being non-confrontational, unassuming, conciliatory or, some may even
say, unprincipled.

To be the ultimate survivor of China's precarious political game, one
has to bend constantly according to the wind currently blowing. A
case in point is how Wen, just weeks before the Sichuan quake,
condemned the Dalai Lama for his alleged role in the Tibet riots:
"There is ample fact and plenty of evidence proving this incident was
organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique
... This has all the more revealed the consistent claims by the Dalai
clique that they pursue not independence, but peaceful dialogue, are
nothing but lies."

Making hardline remarks such as this requires sacrifice in
independent thinking and political vision. In fact, since having
shown great sympathy toward the student protesters in Tiananmen
Square in 1989, Wen has evaded the issue of the Tiananmen Massacre as
if it were a plague and has supported the Party's decision to quell
the demonstration as necessary.

But the most enduring and primary public image of Wen in the
collective memory of the nation - perhaps most revealing of his
personality - is that of "Mr Tears", due to his penchant to cry in
the aftermath of human or natural disasters. He cried during China's
January snowstorms that paralyzed the nation's main transportation
arteries [3]; he cried when visiting the mine accidents where miners
were trapped and killed; during the current quake crisis, Wen's most
memorable public persona has been his crying in front of national TV
to show his sympathy and sorrow for the victims.

Thus the issue of the premier's tears has become a celebrated topic
for many in China to debate, especially on the rapidly growing
bulletins on the Internet [4]. While the majority of the Internet
messages are sympathetic of Wen's tears, others hold that although a
premier's crying may manifest the ultimate compassion and sympathy
for the ravaged and the downtrodden, it also indicates a certain
sense of helplessness and feebleness during a time of national crisis
when courage, vision, and resolve, not tears, are more needed from a
national leader [5]. Yet the sharpest criticism of Wen's tears has
been related to his complete lack of sympathy for the suffering of
Tibetans [6].

In fact, this debate on the premier's crying should not be a trivial
matter. Its poignancy and enormous political implications have been
closely related to Wen's former mentor, Zhao Ziyang, the CCP general
secretary who famously cried in Tiananmen Square, begging the
protesters to leave the place that would soon become an intended
killing field. If Zhao were not indecisive or did not cry in
Tiananmen Square in 1989, or if he instead stood on top of a tank
sympathetic to the pro-democracy forces - bravely commanding the
tremendous force of the millions yearning for freedom, human rights,
and for a change of the corrupt system, like Boris Yeltsin in the
waning days of the Soviet Union - China may have already had a bold
and visionary political leader and a brand new political reality.

But in the final crucial moments that decided history, Moscow did not
believe in tears, and Beijing did. A great historic opportunity was
lost by Zhao for the complete lack of a strong and resolute visionary
leader from within the power elite who alone could command the
enormous political and military resources to change history. And now,
as Zhao's erstwhile protege, Wen continues that legacy [7].

Dissenting voices have emerged on the Chinese Internet that Wen
Jiabao should shed fewer tears and demonstrate more vision and
resolve in tackling China's more fundamental problems such as
resolutely confronting the CCP's political albatross known as the
Tiananmen Massacre; bravely facilitating the process of giving up
one-party monopoly on political power and carrying out true elections
nationwide [8].

Unfortunately, Wen continues to cry to show heart but little resolve
and vision for a politically democratic China. Many have pointed out
in China's online chat rooms that as China's bureaucrat-in-chief, Wen
cares only to be the consummate manager, not the resolute leader [9].
The difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager's
primary concern is how to do things right, but a leader's is how to
do the right things.

Without advanced leadership qualities, Wen, with superb managerial
skills, could at best yell at incompetent officials on the phone and
hang up on them threateningly, as broadcast on national TV during the
current Sichuan quake relief campaign [10], but he will never be able
to root out the ubiquitous patronage network of incompetent officials
everywhere within China's massive bureaucratic machine and entrenched
political culture.

The real tragedy is that Wen Jiabao is working diligently to preserve
an obsolete political system that may well only represent the man's
political resolve and vision, as he recently wrote to the nation that
"We must keep a firm grasp on the basic principles of the party in
the initial stage of socialism, without wavering, for 100 years."

On this 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, let us hope that
Wen did not really mean those words, because another 100 years of
socialism will only mean another 100 years' absence of true democracy in China.

Notes
1. See Yi Si, "The World's Most Catastrophic Dam Failures: The August
1975 Collapse of the Banqiao and Shimantan Dams, in Dai Qing", The
River Dragon Has Come!, M E Sharpe, New York, 1998.
2. See Chen Yong, et al, The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976,
Pergamon Press, 1988.
3. For example, one blogger's rumination, Moved by Premier's Tears .
4. There are countless discussion threads focusing on this in any
given Chinese Internet discussion or blogging sites. For an example,
see The Three Times Premier Wen Cries (Chinese).
5. For example, Should Premier Wen Cry? .
6. Why Didn't Premier Wen Cry This Time? (Chinese .)
7. Some in China have directly associated Wen's tears with Zhao's.
Ibid. 8. For example, Premier Wen Should Swallow His Tears .
9. Ibid.
10. See Containing Tears, Premier Wen Gets Mad Twice While Inspecting
the Disaster .
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