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News from China’s ‘gilded cage’

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

A dissident could not have been more adept at getting his message out to the public than China’s former premier Wen Jiabao (2003-2013) is now doing. He was once among the most powerful leaders of the party and state. Their retirement is sweetened with the utmost comfort under secret rules for the nomenclature of officials. As a price, they agree to no longer attract public attention, not to travel abroad, and to live, literally, in a “gilded cage”. They are to have no opportunity to interfere and disrupt the circles of power under state and party leader Xi Jinping.

Wen Jiabao, now 78, didn’t stick to that with a long obituary for his mother Yang Zhiyun. In order to publish his tribute, the ex-premier had to outsmart the censors. This was because his message of mourning indirectly concealed dissatisfaction with the path China has taken under Xi’s leadership.

Essays with side blows have a tradition in an authoritarian system that does not welcome controversial public debate. Wen’s innuendo was not initially noticed because he did not publish his essay in a major party newspaper. The text appeared in the Macao Herald, a regional paper in the former Portuguese crown colony. It printed the 6500-word obituary “My Mother” (温家宝:我的母亲) on its inside pages and in four installments just before Qingming’s death memorial in April.

Beijing’s censors alarmed

The first was published on March 25, the last on April 16. Wen Jiabao professes pathetically to suffer with China’s “poor and weak” and to fight “harassment and repression”. “The way I see it, China should be just and fair everywhere, and people’s will, humanity, and essence should always be respected.”

Bloggers grabbed the text and shared it hundreds of thousands of times online. By the second day (April 18), Beijing’s alarmed censors were struggling to stop the spread. Their action made global headlines because they put an ex-premier on their index.

The explosiveness is between the lines. Wen traces his mother’s century-long life as a tale of woe for the whole family – in the “maelstrom” of cruel turmoil, from the Japanese invasion to the political persecution campaigns of the People’s Republic. The Cultural Revolution brought “disaster to our home.” Such tones do not fit the jubilant celebrations Beijing is staging to mark the 100th founding birthday of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1. Nor does it fit with Xi’s ordered rewriting of China’s 100-year history as a CCP heroic epic, in which the crimes of the Cultural Revolution are heavily downplayed.

Wen Jiabao as an opponent of the regime?

Nor does the word party appear in the obituary. Wen’s warnings at the last People’s Congress in March 2013, which he chaired while still prime minister, have not been forgotten within the party. Without political reforms, China’s economic transformation would not succeed in the long term: “Tragedies like the Cultural Revolution could happen again”. Wen’s call at the time to prevent the concentration of “excessive power” institutionally and with the help of public opinion must worry Xi, who wants to further cement his power at the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Yet Wen Jiabao is by no means an opponent of the regime or has a problem with his credibility. His family, even his mother, is said to have been involved in dubious billion-dollar deals, as the New York Times revealed in 2012.

Wen writes, “In the past eight years, I rarely went out of the house.” This is exactly what China’s party leadership expects of him and all senior citizens. When the old folks were at the helm, they traveled all over the country and the world. Now none of them are allowed to go abroad, even as self-paying tourists. Their essays, books, or memoirs must be pre-approved by the Politburo.

Even courtesy meetings with particularly prominent foreigners only take place if they ask for them, and the Politburo agrees. Beijing allowed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, who has met Wen Jiabao 20 times in office, to have an unofficial breakfast with him in 2014 in the cafeteria attic of the National Museum. This was not allowed to be reported, nor was the 2015 meeting with Austria’s President Heinz Fischer, who has known Wen Jiabao since 1988. Other “old friends” of China were also allowed to pay their respects to ex-premier Zhu Rongji, from Helmut Schmidt to BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht to Gerhard Schroeder who was allowed to present Zhu with an award.

Once a year – and always shortly before the start of the Lunar New Year – China’s respective leaders themselves commemorate their predecessors who once retired in honor. Beijing cultivates this as a ritual. At least this way, the public can hear who of the old ones is still alive, but without learning more about them.

On this year’s February 9, it was that time again. The CCTV newscaster read out Xi’s and his highest comrades’ greetings to all the once-powerful who are still politically well today. They wished them happy holidays, good health, and long life. It took the speaker four minutes to enumerate the 110 names, starting with ex-party leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Premier Wen Jiabao came in sixth place. Let’s see if he’ll be on the list next year, too.


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