BEIJING (Reuters) - Clambering over shattered buildings, tearfully comforting weeping children, hollering into a bullhorn, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has become the unusually open and emotional face of his nation's response to calamity.
The 65-year-old head of government has dominated China's public handling of its worst earthquake in 32 years, rushing to the scene hours after the 7.9 magnitude tremor hit on Monday.
To judge from scenes of Wen in the worst-hit parts of Sichuan province, he is treating the disaster as a very personal test of his and his government's bonds with the people.
Visiting one of the many schools toppled by the quake, Wen marched through mud and shards of concrete and tile, and wept "hot tears" when he reached rescuers trying to dig out two trapped children, the People's Daily reported on Wednesday.
"I'm grandpa Wen Jiabao. You children will certainly be able to tough this out and be rescued," Wen yelled into the crevice.
Wen's heart-on-sleeve approach sets him apart from the ranks of guarded politicians who dominate the unelected Communist Party leadership. But he also echoes Party predecessors who seized such moments of public immersion, especially in times of crisis, as an antidote to potential discontent.
"Chinese tradition usually expects leaders to be guarded and maintain a sense of mystery. He's an exception, and certainly not all officials would be willing to take such a public role," said Zhang Ming, a historian at Renmin University in Beijing.
"I'd say that faced with so many crises, especially this year, the Party has been learning that it helps to have a more open face people can connect to," he said, referring to a cold snap that caused huge economic damage and then Tibetan riots that led to a protest-dogged world tour for Beijing Olympic torch.
Since becoming premier in 2003, Wen has honed a role as a gently spoken man focused on solving the country's social ills.
He has spent Lunar New Year holidays down a coal mine and in an AIDS-stricken village, vowed to retrieve migrant workers' unpaid wages, and this year he flew into areas paralysed by severe winter weather to take personal responsibility for the crisis.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
Wen similarly climbed to the top of China's treacherous political ladder by offering himself as a skilled problem-solver.
A defining icon of Wen's character is a picture taken in 1989, weeks before the military crackdown on protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The picture shows an expressionless Wen standing next to then-Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang as he made an emotional appeal to students to leave. Zhao was ousted days later.
Wen -- Zhao's chief of staff at the time -- survived. The newly installed Party chief, Jiang Zemin, was impressed by Wen's self-effacing obedience, retired officials have said.
But on managing crises, Wen has become the public face of what is often a very private government.
State television has shown him hoarsely shouting encouragement to stricken farmers, tearfully grasping a girl's wrist, and hugging farmers who lost their homes.
By contrast, poker-faced President Hu Jintao has avoided complicating frantic rescue efforts by visiting the quake-hit region, instead issuing statements via state media.
Wen's ways echo past Chinese leaders who also prized a popular touch. Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong's faithful premier, also descended on disaster-struck areas to comfort locals.
Late Party chief Hu Yaobang irked some colleagues by his emotional visits to the grassroots when he would sometimes issue decisions that tripped up established policy.
Wen appears too careful to make such mistakes. But he set a demanding deadline for troops and officials to complete rescue steps, putting them under unusual public pressure.
"For the ordinary people, that public response has been very timely. People want to know somebody is demanding answers," said Zhang, the scholar.