Sunday, October 19, 2008
Hardliners in bid to oust China’s PM
Michael Sheridan, Far East Correspondent
China's most popular politician Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, has become a target for Communist party hardliners and could be forced from office, according to an influential magazine in Hong Kong.
Its report is a rare insight into the struggle over the future of China between political reformers and guardians of the police state.
The prime minister’s popularity rose this year as he comforted the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan province, visited people caught up in disastrous snowstorms and defended China’s unyielding policy on Tibet. A 66-year-old known as “grandpa”, he has his own page on Facebook, the social networking website seen by millions.
Rivalries inside the party have broken out behind the facade of unity erected for the Olympic Games, said Kaifang (Open), the monthly magazine that is known for its political sources inside China and its publication of information banned in the media.
It said hardliners in the party’s propaganda department and at the People’s Daily newspaper had orchestrated a campaign of abuse directed at Wen’s supposed support for universal values such as democracy and human rights. “China’s ship of reform is on the rocks and risks sinking,” Kaifang said in its analysis. “The party needs to find a scapegoat.”
Last week important land reforms were put on hold. Wen has also been passed over for the job of heading a prestigious committee, the magazine said.
It listed several press attacks which, as is often the case in Chinese politics, did not identify their victim but left no doubt among those in the know as to who it was.
The most prominent critic was Chen Kuiyuan, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a rubber-stamp body whose title sums up everything it is not. “Some in China want to dance to the West’s tune,” wrote Chen.
The People’s Daily of September 10 printed a column headlined “How to see through the theory of so-called universal values”.
Today the prime minister is seen by many ordinary Chinese as a friendly face at the apex of power. He has been compared to the veteran revolutionary Zhou Enlai, who is claimed to have moderated the worst crimes of Maoism.
Suspicions about Wen’s authoritarian credentials date back to 1989 when he went into Tiananmen Square to meet demonstrators at the side of his boss Zhao Ziyang, the reformist general secretary of the Communist party.
Within days of that encounter – captured in a photograph still recognised all over China – the tanks rolled in, Zhao was purged and the young Wen vanished into temporary obscurity.
He quietly conformed and made his way back through the ranks to become prime minister in 2003. Last March he was reappointed for a second five-year term under President Hu Jintao. The duo have guided China to the left in economics, with policies to strengthen workers’ rights and to preserve a dominant role for the state in the market economy.
Wen appears to have laid himself open to criticism by talking in general terms about the values of democracy and human rights in interviews with the foreign media.
There is no evidence, however, that he deviates from the official line that China cannot afford democracy now because it would bring chaos.
Nonetheless, Kaifang said that the president would be happy to jettison his prime minister because it would alter the balance of power between factions and fortify his own position.
Political analysts say Li Keqiang, the colourless vice-premier, would step up if Wen was forced out.