China’s Reformer Wen Jiabao Speaks Out

The premier talked about the world economy, Chinese relations with the United States and the future of political reform in China.

Premier Wen Jiabao of China is a popular figure at home, often appearing in public and giving press conferences unlike most of his predecessors and colleagues. But it has been two years since he sat down for an interview with Western press. Fareed Zakaria spoke with Wen on CNN’s GPS this Sunday about the world economy, Chinese relations with the United States and the future of political reform in China.

Wen, the third most powerful man in the Chinese administration, has been dubbed the “People’s Premier” for being the most visible of China’s leaders and advocating a broader growth philosophy that includes the country’s largely agrarian and still very poor hinterland. He reiterated the need to involve all of China in its economic development on GPS, noting that it “still lacks balance, coordination and sustainability.”

The premier, along with, most notably, president and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao, represents China’s fourth generation of leadership. Most of its members were educated as engineers and favor a more technocratic, less dogmatic and centralized approach to government. Wen is a trained geologist and spent nearly twenty years working in the provinces before being transferred to Beijing in 1986. Since assuming the premiership in 2003, Wen has played a key role in formulating the country’s financial and economic policies and was largely responsible for drafting China’s stimulus measures in the wake of the global downturn two years ago.

Despite the immense prosperity derived from market reforms in recent years, the financial crisis, according to Wen, demonstrated the need for an active role of the state in the economy. Specifically, he stressed the urgency of stimulating internal demand which his stimulus package — nearly ten times the size of President Barack Obama’s in the United States in terms of national income — aims to achieve. The premier laid out the four components of the plan: first, a combination of infrastructure investments and tax cuts; second, the adjustment and upgrading of China’s industrial structure; third, innovation in science and technology; and fourth, an extension of the social safety net.

Of the nearly $600 billion worth of investment, Wen pointed out, only about a third is provided by the government. More than $400 billion has to be raised by the private sector. The measures have helped maintain the “momentum” of Chinese growth, said Wen, “and it has helped us avoid major fluctuations in the process of China’s modernization because of severe external shock.”

Asked about the nowadays rather troubled relations with the United States, Wen pointed out that “China does not pursue a trade surplus.” American lawmakers allege that China artificially undervalues its currency, the renminbi, typically referred to as the yuan, in order to make Chinese exports cheaper. According to Wen, China’s trade surplus has diminished in recent years and his administration seeks balance instead of predominance in international transactions. Moreover, said Wen, the renminbi has appreciated more than 50 percent compared to the United States dollar since China initiated monetary reforms in 1994 while the country still maintains a trade deficit in terms of services.

Considered a populist and a moderate, Wen has repeatedly hinted at the need to reform China’s political system throughout his years in high office. He accompanied the disavowed General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to Tiananmen Square during the 1989 student demonstrations there and recently rehabilitated the name of Communist Party reformer Hu Yaobang whose death in April 1989 spurred those very protests. He again praised Hu in this most recent interview for contributing to the opening up of China.

In light of China’s mounting public discontent with the lack of political freedom, Wen characterized freedom of speech as “indispensable” but balked at the prospect of relaxing Internet censorship regulations. “We should not only let people have the freedom of speech,” he explained. “We, more importantly, must create the conditions to let them criticize the work of the government.”

Nonetheless, his views on democracy and political freedom are more liberal than those of the rest of the party leadership. Wen sums up his political ideals in four sentences.

To let everyone lead a happy life with dignity. To let everyone feel safe and secure. To let the society be one with equity and justice. And to let everyone have confidence in the future.

The premier pledged to “act in accordance” with those ideals no matter the circumstances. “I will not fall in spite of the strong wind and harsh rain,” he professed, “and I will not yield until the last day of my life.”