BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is on a delicate diplomatic mission this weekend as he attends a trilateral meeting expected to be dominated by North Korea and tries to shore up his influence at home.
The trilateral talks will be a tricky task. International pressure is growing for China to acknowledge, and then act upon, evidence that a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan in March.
In overseas summits, Wen has to operate within the constraints of China’s collective leadership, without the spontaneity that has allowed him to build a reputation as a caring man of the people.
Domestically, a deft deal would shore up support for Wen, who faces declining power over the next two years. His successor will be anointed at the next Communist Party congress in 2012.
“Wen would increase his own standing with the leadership if he negotiated a successful outcome,” said Russell Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese affairs.
“It would certainly add to his credibility as a problem-solver within the leadership.”
Wen bows out in early 2013, after a decade at the helm of China’s one-party government where the 67-year-old premier has espoused policies to spread wealth and reduce inequalities.
But it won’t be easy to set the agenda this weekend, given China’s collective decision-making.
“He will need consensus before departure, and cannot just change policies,” said Bo Zhiyue, a researcher at National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
“He has very little room to manoeuvre ... That’s a constraint of the collective leadership system.”
During climate change negotiations in Copenhagen last year, Wen raised hackles when he retreated to a hotel room and sent a junior official to negotiate with other world leaders.
Critics accused China of deliberately obstructing a deal, but many analysts felt Wen’s actions reflected his lack of autonomy or power to negotiate for his country. Wen told his annual news conference in March that China was on the invitation list but was never formally notified.
At home, Wen uses public appearances to his advantage despite a relatively weak power base. He is more approachable and more personable than his counterparts in the Party’s nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top political body.
“Because the end of his term is so visible, in many ways Wen is considered a lame-duck premier,” Bo said. “He’s fully aware of his limited time in office and wants to leave some legacy.”
He recently generated controversy within China for penning a nostalgic essay commemorating Hu Yaobang, the reformist Party chief whose death on April 15, 1989, sparked pro-democracy protests by students and workers centred on Tiananmen Square.
Some interpreted the essay as an attempt to regain favour with the Communist Youth League, the power base of incumbent Party chief and President Hu Jintao.
Wen was noticeably absent during the opening of the World Expo in Shanghai in May, visiting instead displaced Tibetan victims of a strong earthquake in Yushu, Qinghai province.
After the devastating Sichuan quake in 2008, Wen’s visits to the disaster zone kept the rescue in the public spotlight and spurred the army and bureaucracy to respond to pressing problems.
The burst of popularity for “Grandpa Wen” may also have aroused envy and adoring state media coverage of Wen was soon replaced by images of the more sedate President Hu.
Narrowing the urban-rural income gap is a policy goal for Wen. He abolished a grains tax dating back two millennia, promoted rural industry and sketched out a broad social welfare net.
Other initiatives to coax growth away from cheap exports, big state projects and polluting factories have met resistance.
A geologist by training, Wen spent 14 years in poor, arid Gansu province, rising through the Party as a loyal and ever-prepared aide.
His reputation for unassuming service helped him survive 1989, when his boss, then party chief Zhao Ziyang, was purged and put under house arrest for opposing the military crackdown on the pro-democracy protests. Zhao died in 2005.
“My heart will always belong to my noble hopes, and for this I would have no regrets even if I died nine times over,” Wen said in March, quoting Qu Yuan (340 BC-278 BC), the poet-statesman who threw himself into a river in present-day Hunan province to protest against misrule by the king of Chu.
Wen’s immediate predecessor as premier, Zhu Rongji, seemed to relish lambasting officials, baiting reporters and making bold policy gambles, only some of which were successful.
Wen by contrast casts himself as a humble servant of the people, smiling, conciliatory, often tearful in the face of their suffering and with a relentless capacity for new jobs.
“Zhu Rongji had his iron fist and Wen Jiabao has had his tears, but in the end both men have found neither way works magic,” Zheng Yongnian, head of the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, told Reuters.
In private, officials sometimes scoff at Wen’s shows of sentimentality, seen as unbecoming from a state boss.
“You can be popular by being soft. But eventually all policies have to be enforced by bureaucrats and special interests, and then crying doesn’t work,” said Zheng.
Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Paul Tait