Hu Yaobang, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in the 1980's
Who is China’s First Dissident? Many China observers believe that it is not Lui Xiabao who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Prime Minister (or Premier in Communist jargon) of the country, Wen Jiabao who will be visiting India between December 15 and 17.
During the last few months, Wen has spoken on several occasions on the same theme as the Nobel Laureate; he ended up being censured by the ‘authorities’ of his own country.
Take his visit to the United States in September. Wen Jiabao was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria for CNN's Global Public Square. The NRI journalist asked him about an article that Wen had written on Hu Yaobang, the most liberal Chinese leader after the Communist take-over of China in 1949, "You wrote an article about your old boss, Hu Yaobang. In it, you praise him. Do you think in retrospect that Hu Yaobang was a very good leader of China?" Wen immediately answered: "Yes, I think I have given a fair assessment of the history of this person. He made his own contributions to China's reform and opening up."
Then Zakaria asked Wen about freedom of speech in China, the suave Premier, known as ‘Grandpa Wen’ in the Middle Kingdom, replied: "I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution.” He then continued in the same vein: “I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticise the work of the government."
When Lui Xiaobo had said the same thing, he was jailed for 11 years.
Well, it might be the prerogative of the Premier of the State Council to not be jailed but only censured. Ironically, it is the same State Council which sentenced Lui.
More than a dissident, Wen has probably an extraordinary capacity of adaptation and survival. On May 19, 1989, the director of the general office of the Chinese Communist Party, walked with his boss, CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to meet the youth striking on Tiananmen Square. Zhao told the students: "I have to ask you to think carefully about the future". He assured them that all issues could be dealt with peacefully.
One of the recriminations of the students was that their protest was considered as 'turmoil' by the party rather than a patriotic movement. For the youth on the Square, the terminology mattered greatly: they felt that their motivations were being questioned. The director was Wen Jiabao.
Two weeks later, as the People's Liberation Army's tank rolled into the Square and cornered the remaining students, another man acted as a negotiator between the students and the troops. It is said that he managed to broker a deal with the army and thanks to him, some students escaped the bloodshed. The name of this man is Lui Xiaobo.
Today the latter is a Nobel Laureate and jailed, while the former is Premier and censured. We are living in a strange world!
An interesting debate is today going on in China: is Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier 'putting on a show' when he speaks about democratic reforms? Due to the extreme opaqueness of the regime in Beijing, the question is not easy to answer.
The South China Morning Post mentioned a letter written by some former senior editors and journalists (including the nonagenarian secretary of Mao). The Hong Kong paper wrote: "Sponsors of the open letter seemed most outraged by the fact that even Wen had been censored. They cited examples of his speech in Shenzhen on August 21, a talk with journalists in the US on September 22 and his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23.”
Living in India, the ‘largest democracy in the world’, it is difficult to imagine a Prime Minister not free to speak his mind or having portions of his speeches deleted by an all-powerful Propaganda Department.
When the question about Wen was asked to Du Daozheng, director of the editorial board at Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine (former Chinese edition of Asiaweek), he replied: “In my view [Wen] has always worked tirelessly for opening and reform. In terms of action, among the highest-level leaders in the Central Committee, he has not only made his position clear, but he has also worked very hard. His style and manner are about closeness and service to the people. …He is also a living person, with his own thread of life… This is not ‘putting on a show’. I think that his manner and actions are based on his wide knowledge and the excellent traditions of Chinese culture.”
But people like Yu Jie, the author of China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao do not believe that ‘Grandpa Wen’ is a reformist. In an interview with BBC's Chinese service, Yu said: "Wen Jiabao and [President] Hu Jintao are like the two sides of a coin. They are on a tandem bike, heading in the same direction. I think they are playing the good-guy-bad-guy routine, like the harsh-dad-loving-mum sort of thing.”
In another interview, he affirmed: “they share the same goal, which is to strengthen their power base. I think they have more in common than differences. That's why I don't agree with the unrealistic view held by many Western scholars and China observers, as well as many Chinese people, that Wen is a reformist, that he is more open."
There is a fascinating cable from the US Ambassador to China about Beijing’s Tibet policy in one of the Wikileaks releases. In April 2008, Ambassador Clark T. Randt tends to have the same perception as Yu Jie: “While there may be differences in how various leaders have publicly articulated China's Tibet policy, there are no substantive differences among the top leadership, contacts asserted. xxxx asserted that, on Tibet, Hu and Wen are like a "restaurant sugar packet," black on one side and white on the other, but still part of the same whole. In other words, Hu and Wen merely emphasize different aspects of the same policy. xxxxx said xxxxx "sensed" Wen may be "slightly more moderate" on Tibet than some other leaders, but he thought that represents Wen's style and does not imply a disagreement over official policy. …’Wen simply being Wen’ and appearing more ‘moderate and reasonable’ on almost every issue, even though his comments represented no serious departure from the official line.”
That is exactly the point “Wen simply being Wen” gives a ‘milder’ face to a regime which remains basically undemocratic.
What can India expect from Wen’s three days visit?
Regarding the stapled visas for Kashmiris, nothing will be announced during the visit though Beijing’s policy will probably be progressively relaxed. Wen will say that his government is working hard to reduce the trade deficit with India. With a contingent of 400 businesspersons, the Premier is scheduled to witness some 45 business deals between Indian and Chinese companies. He may even beat Obama and Sarkozy and take back home some $ 20 billion in contracts. The fact remains that the import from Tibet remain nil this year at Nathu-la border pass in Sikkim.
But China being China, Wen will bring nothing directly home, he will first visit Islamabad and assure China’s ‘all-weather friend’ of Beijing’s unconditional support. As Indrani Bagchi put it in The Times of India: “China will openly thumb its nose at the international system by following up on its promise to deliver three more nuclear power reactors to Pakistan, the last one being the mammoth 1 GB reactor.”
The Mandarins in South Block will probably pretend to not notice this practice which has been dropped by other ‘friendly’ countries.
However one issue should strongly be taken the Indian Prime Minister: the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra. A few days ago, the Chinese TV announced the opening of a new road reaching right to the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh: “The harsh natural conditions meant building a highway connecting Motuo [Metok] to outside world was once considered a dream. However, just in a week, the last tunnel is due to be completed for the Motuo Highway and the dream will come true”, said CCTV reporter Yin Xiang.
For India, it might be a nightmare.
In 2004, ‘Grand Pa’ Wen had managed to block the construction of a large hydropower plant on the Salween river. He used his ‘influence’ to demand an in-depth study of the likely impact on the local ecology and communities. At that time, his decision upset the power companies as well as local vested interests, but was welcomed by the environmentalists and the bloggers.
Why can’t he do the same for the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra)?
He would then be more than the good guy or the dissident.