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The people's Premier

world Updated: Dec 15, 2010 10:08 IST
Reshma Patil

Once a year in Beijing, a Chinese Indologist, who translated the Ramayana into Mandarin during the Cultural Revolution, received a soft-spoken visitor from the walled government headquarters. They would discuss ancient India and China in their meetings until the scholar Ji Xianlin's death in 2009.

The visitor was the third most powerful technocrat in the secretive Politburo of the Communist Party ruling China. His fans call him baobao (baby).

Since geologist turned Premier Wen Jiabao, 68, last visited India in 2005, he has cultivated his image as the populist face of the politburo, who speaks to the nation as if it is an electorate.

He surfs the Internet, checks the price of pork and cabbage every morning to gauge national mood, and packs Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments for journeys.

Beijing is banking less on political breakthroughs and more on the skilful 'people's Premier' to lessen tension between the giants and swing nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border.

"For the first time, the Indian public will like a Chinese leader," strategist Shi Yinhong said.

Wen is also disaster manager. Two years ago, 'Grandpa Wen' in signature frayed, old overcoat was the first top leader to reach the earthquake-flattened Sichuan province and supervise rescues in the rain.

His speeches will be personalised with Chinese idioms but stick to the party line on foreign policy over which President Hu Jintao and state councillor Dai Bingguo wield more power. Wen's political influence is waning. His stint is more remarkable for economic reforms and steering China out of recession to overtake Japan.

The man to watch long-term is President Hu's heir apparent vice-president Xi Jinping, who was recently made vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the People's Liberation Army, which increasingly influences Beijing's India policy. Post-2012, lesser-known Li Keqiang may replace Wen as Premier.

In the 1989 pro-democracy protests, Wen was at Tiananmen Square interacting with students with his party senior, who was later purged.

As Premier since 2003, Wen avoided controversy until he recently began a comeback as political reformer.

This year, Wen famously warned that modernisation would fail without political restructuring. "I will not fall in spite of strong wind and harsh rain…people's wishes and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible," Wen told CNN in an October interview that did not reach Chinese citizens. The party censored its Premier.