Former premier Wen Jiabao published a personal essay in a Macao newspaper on 15 April that appeared to obliquely criticize Chinese political trends under President Xi Jinping. While the essay suggests a degree of discontent among some political elites, there is no sign that such discontent will coalesce into organized opposition. The most likely outcome remains that Xi gains a third five-year term as Communist Party general secretary at the party congress in 2022. However, the opposite outcome — that Xi fails to secure a third term — is still more likely than generally believed, perhaps one in three.
Wen’s essay is ostensibly a recollection of his parents, occasioned by the death of his mother in December. Wen describes the abuse his father, a teacher, suffered during the Cultural Revolution, including house arrest, harsh interrogations, and beatings. It concludes with Wen’s vision of an ideal China: “In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice. There should always be respect for the will of the people, humanity and the nature of human beings. There should always be youthfulness, freedom and a striving spirit.” The implication is the contemporary China lacks these virtues, and the choice of an obscure Macao newspaper suggests that state-owned mainland media were unwilling to publish his essay. Chinese censors scrubbed the essay from most online news sites, though as of 21 April it remained accessible on some WeChat public accounts.
Prior to the essay, Wen already had a reputation as a political liberal, albeit one who was too timid and/or too weak to enact liberal reforms. In 2010, when he was still premier, Wen published an essay in People’s Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, reminiscing about a trip in 1986 with then-general secretary Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded leader who clashed with Deng Xiaoping over how to deal with student protestors in 1987 and was forced to resign. Hu’s death in April 1989 inspired the Tiananmen Square student protest movement. Wen’s essay was interpreted as a sympathetic tribute to Hu, who has been largely erased from official party histories.
Wen also appears in an iconic 1989 photo of Zhao Ziyang delivering a now-famous speech to students in the square. Zhao succeeded Hu as general secretary, but this sympathetic speech would be his last public appearance before party leaders ousted him, too. The photo shows Zhao full of emotion as Wen, then a young aide, stands solemnly beside him. Later in 2010, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Wen said that “freedom of speech is indispensable,” comments that were censored inside China.
As previously discussed, there have long been signs that elements of China’s political elite are unhappy with the country’s authoritarian turn under Xi. Xi’s fierce anti-corruption campaign, which has felled many senior leaders and their associates, appears to be the biggest source of discontent. The broader crackdown on even mild political dissent, the cult of personality around Xi, and the statist turn in economic policy are also sources of discontent.
Even as premier, Wen was not a strong figure, and as a retired politician his influence is probably negligible. His essay is a reminder that opposition to Xi still exists, but for such opposition to exert a concrete impact on Chinese politics would likely require an external shock that creates an opening to challenge Xi: e.g., recession, financial crisis, large-scale protests, or a major diplomatic failure. None of these shocks appear likely in the short term.