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Opinion: Wen's surprisingly self-critical farewell

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has opened the National People's Congress with his last report on the progress of the country. While he voiced self-criticism, he also used the speech to improve his image.

Wen Jiabao's last important speech as the prime minister of China lasted 100 minutes. According to a traditional procedure, he opened with a report on this year's National People's Congress - China's mock parliament. Donning a dark blue suit, white shirt and a red tie, Wen wore the traditional attire of Beijing's party elite. And the content of his speech was also familiar; it focused on China's military spending, which this year as in previous ones, has already risen considerably compared to the country's total spending - this time around 11 percent.

Matthias von Hein

Matthias von Hein, head of DW's Chinese department

China's Communist Party sees itself as the guarantor of the country's sovereignty and as the representative of China's territorial integrity. That's why, it believes, it is entitled to absolute power. The increase of the military budget also aims to represent the renaissance of China's national strength. And when it comes to the territorial conflict with neighboring countries in the South China sea or with Japan in the case of the Diaoyu, as the Chinese call them, or Senkaku Islands, as the Japanese call them, a good wave of patriotism is an easy distraction from domestic problems.

Self-criticism

What was interesting about Wen's report was the self-critical words chosen with regard to the Chinese development model. China's growth was not balanced, he said. It was uncoordinated and not sustainable. He pointed out the facts: China has paid a high price for its rapid economic growth. Now, the environment is in a dire situation. And the disparities between rich and poor and also between the coastal regions and the west of the country have reached threatening levels.

Wen's speech focused on the improvement of the standard of living of Chinese people. He used refreshingly clear language; phrases such as "socialism with Chinese characteristics" were hardly used.

As was often the case in the past, Wen Jiabao this time addressed the right topics. The only question is, what was he able to do as prime minister - aim for sustainable growth or fight the causes of omnipresent corruption? Causes, which can be traced back to the fact that there is no division of power; the Communist Party and its members stand above the law.

Flawed image

Wen Jiabao is, perhaps, a tragic figure. He is the first party leader to speak of political reform, but without much effect. In fact, the party has even tightened its reigns in the past few years. It might be the case that Wen was open to real reform, but that he was not able to assert it before the all-powerful politburo. China's Communist Party makes its decisions behind closed doors, so it is possible that we will never really know.

In everyday life, Wen tried to dedicate himself to the cause of the masses - and also as a crisis manager, for example, when the SARS pandemic broke out 10 years ago, after the catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan in the year 2008 and when there was an accident on the high-speed rail in 2011. He liked it when people referred to him as "Papa Wen."

Last autumn, however, his flawless image became stained, when the "New York Times" reported that members of his vast family managed to accumulate giant fortunes of more than two million dollars during his time in office. After the report was published, the website was blocked in China. And Wen's denial was only published in Hong Kong; the Wen family fortune was never addressed in Chinese media. News of it, however, did manage to spread among the Chinese population.

But maybe Wen was simply China's "greatest actor." That is how author Yu Jie described him in a book about the premier in 2010. His speech on March 5, 2013 before the National People's Congress was his closing act.

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