China Power

Wen Jiabao Exits the Stage

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China Power

Wen Jiabao Exits the Stage

How will history judge Premier Wen Jiabao and his time in office?

Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao thanked the Chinese people for allowing him to serve and expressed confidence in his successors during a panel discussion at the 12th National People's Congress (NPC).

"The past decade was extraordinary in the country's development history. I am very grateful and have cherished the chance to serve the country," Wen said Xinhua News Agency reported.

Much of Wen’s speeches at the NPC have been spent defending his and outgoing President Hu Jintao’s record. Still, many Chinese and foreign analysts are already portraying Wen and Hu’s tenure as a “lost decade” for China, despite the extraordinary economic growth they presided over.

During his farewell address this week Wen himself conceded: “If I did not do enough, it would mean that I was not competent enough. I beg forgiveness from the people." 

The modest tone of Wen’s speech was characteristic of his time as China’s premier where he was often seen as a grandfatherly figure. This image was undoubtedly tarnished somewhat by a New York Times investigation last year that found that Wen’s family members had enriched themselves significantly during his time in power.

Wen has also been a strong advocate for deepening political reforms in China, a fact not altogether surprising given his former closeness to General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, the liberal reformer who was ousted by Deng Xiaoping after he refused to sign the decree ordering the army to crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Even with Wen’s vocal support, however, political reform in China largely stalled during the last decade.

Wen also delivered the government’s work report at the NPC on Tuesday, setting a 7.5 percent growth target for 2013. It was the last time he will deliver the report as Li Keqiang is scheduled to formally succeed Wen as premier during the annual meeting of the Chinese Legislature.

Wen expressed confidence in his successors at the NPC despite previously sparring with Li over the issue of urbanization, which Li has already indicated will be a top priority for him as premier.

In a January speech to the nation’s top economic planning body, National Development and Reform,Wen warned against sacrificing, “rural industry and the interests of rural residents,” in pursuit of rapid urbanization. This seemed to contradict Li who has repeatedly called urbanization the main growth engine for the Chinese economy in the years ahead, and said he believes it should be accelerated.

Wen and Hu came into office pledging to focus more attention on the interests of China’s rural and non-coastal regions after these areas were largely neglected when Jiang Zemin and the “Shanghai Faction were in power. 

Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He is on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.