There he was on the dais in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, a quiet-looking bureaucrat, waving cheerfully to the photographers and reporters who gathered to capture the final moments of the 16th Party Congress. Unremarkable, really--except Wen Jiabao was standing one man removed from President-elect Hu Jintao, in the spot reserved for the next Premier of China. And that is what Wen Jiabao is slated to become early next year.
That means Wen will soon be the man charged with keeping China's economic miracle going and maintaining its halting momentum toward reform. It is a terrifying task, one not even the brilliant Zhu Rongji, the current Premier, executed with complete success. Much of China's future, then, rests on whatever chemistry of kingship develops between Hu and Wen--and top leader Jiang Zemin, who is stepping back but not leaving the scene.
Yet for a man expected to become Premier of a nation of 1.3 billion in a few short months, not much is known about Wen Jiabao. A slight, bespectacled 60-year-old schooled as a geologist, he has steadily risen through the party hierarchy, most recently acting as chief aide to Zhu, who is said to have insisted he be chosen as Premier over several other candidates. The policies he will choose are still largely unknown. Like all leaders-in-waiting, Wen has had to keep his head low in order to have a shot at taking power. Ever since Wen was first rumored to be in the running for Premier, "he has become even more cautious about showing his opinions and policies," says a senior econ- omist with a Beijing investment bank. "We will have to wait until he takes office."
Wen was assigned by Zhu to two of China's most delicate projects: agricultural modernization and financial reform. Under his tutelage, the party moved toward giving peasants long-term rights to landholdings. And the finance mandarins made important first steps in building a more solid financial infrastructure.
Now, Wen will be the master of the whole economy, charged with managing China's transformation into a high-tech powerhouse, with finding a way to deal with thousands of decrepit state-owned enterprises, and with controlling the anger of millions of Chinese workers displaced and thrown out of work by the rapid transformation of the world's 6th-largest economy. Little is known about how he plans to handle these issues. Speculation is that he will not be as much of a micromanager as Zhu, and will give more decision-making power to his vice-ministers in areas like finance and foreign investment.
Certainly no one expects Wen to be as forceful an administrator as his predecessor. Nicknamed Boss Zhu, the outgoing Premier has a reputation for fits of temper in which he dressed down provincial officials in front of their subordinates. Wen, by contrast, is soft-spoken and a consensus builder, a man who "likes to listen to different expert views before making important decisions," says a retired Beijing scholar who has met him. "He is also very sharp, attentive to detail, and hard-working."
Although little known outside China, over the past decade Wen has been a key player in gathering party support for financial and economic reforms, including such crucial jobs as cleaning up the banking system. From 1986 to 1993, he played his behind-the-scenes role as head of the General Office of the Communist Party, responsible for such tasks as setting the agenda for party meetings and distributing internal documents. Since 1993, he has done the same job as an alternate, then full member of the Politburo. "He has been in a national policy position for a long time," says a source in the Chinese financial community who knows Wen well. "He's not visible, but he has been intimately involved in critical decisions."
One intriguing piece of Wen's biography: He was a close aide to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang back in 1989, when student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square resulted in massive bloodshed. Zhao was purged from the party for being too sympathetic to the democracy movement, and remains under house arrest to this day. Is Wen, too, a potential political reformer? No one knows.
Although born in the coastal city of Tianjin, Wen, like many of his contemporaries, got a close-up view of rural, interior China courtesy of the Cultural Revolution. When that disruptive movement closed China's schools, Wen halted his graduate studies in geology and was sent in 1968 to the western city of Lanzhou, known for its poverty and pollution. There he worked in the local geology bureau for a decade. His reputation as a quick study and hard worker is believed to have caught the eye of Song Ping, then party secretary of Gansu. Now a conservative party elder, Song has given crucial backing to Wen's rise in the Party.
While in the west, Wen developed credentials as an agricultural and environmental expert, and in recent years has headed China's efforts to control floods, as well as running its poverty relief office. "He has long experience in the central government, but really knows the countryside," says Hu Angang, director of the Center for China Studies at Tsinghua University. "To know the real situation in China, you must also understand our rural sector."
Agriculture is one sector where analysts are betting Wen will get directly involved and push for faster reform. With rural income growth lagging that in urban areas, and with farmers increasingly hit by onerous local fees and taxes, Wen has aggressively pushed policies to limit the rural tax burden and allow farmers to plant higher-value crops such as fruits and vegetables. In the future, he is likely to push to further liberalize laws giving farmers freedom to sell their land and to emigrate to the cities. "Wen Jiabao is definitely a strong force for rural reform," says an expert on China's rural economy. "He will continue promoting agricultural restructuring."
One soft spot in Wen's armor may be bank reform. Despite five years heading a key party committee on financial restructuring, Wen has shown little inclination to take the drastic actions--such as foreclosing on nonperforming loans handed out to moribund state-run companies--that some say is needed. At an October conference, he called for a "gradual approach" to financial reforms.
The consensus is that when Wen ascends to the Premier's job, probably in March, he will move as deliberately as he always has. Both he and Hu Jintao have to feel their way cautiously as they figure out the position of President Jiang Zemin, who is expected to continue to wield considerable power through his allies on the Politburo. Wen, however, is considered to have staying power. Provided he doesn't make a fatal misstep, he could be a fixture in Beijing--and an increasingly visible one--for many years to come.
By Dexter Roberts in Beijing, with Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong