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Analyzing the Censorship of Wen Jiabao’s Essay

◎ The following analysis was first published in the April 22, 2021 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.


From March 25 to April 16, Macau Herald, a weekly Chinese language newspaper based in the former Portuguese colony, published in four parts an essay by former PRC premier Wen Jiabao. The essay, titled “My Mother,” was a tribute to Wen’s mother Yang Zhiyun, who passed away in 2020. The publication of the essay coincided with Qingming on April 4, a traditional Chinese festival where people commemorate their deceased relatives. 

Highlights of the essay (with analysis and context) include: 

1. The first part introduces the early life of Yang Zhiyun, including the loss of her parents during the Sino-Japanese war and various hardships. 

2. The second part of the essay goes over Yang’s time as a primary school teacher. Wen Jiabao describes his mother as a kind and compassionate person who looked out for other impoverished people. The essay also introduces Wen’s poverty-stricken childhood days. 

3. Part three of the essay presents Yang Zhiyun as an honest and simple mother who was very strict with her children. Wen Jiabao recalled that his mother once beat him with a broomstick until it broke for pocketing a one cent coin that he had found. He noted that her teachings “benefited me throughout my whole life.” 

Wen wrote that his mother frequently reminded his family that their father was not implicated in the Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns under Mao Zedong because he was not corrupt. However, Wen’s father was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

Wen added that Yang Zhiyun never sought out officials (to build connections and/or gain benefits), survived on a meager salary her whole life, and had no savings or wealth at the time of her death. 

  • Analysis: Wen Jiabao is using the short memoir and tribute to his mother to portray himself as an honest and upright “clean” CCP official, as well as clear Yang Zhiyun’s name. A 2012 New York Times report claimed that Wen’s mother had millions of assets in her name at the time and Wen’s relatives had accumulated billions of dollars worth of assets when he was premier (2003 to 2013). 

4. In part four of the essay, Wen Jiabao showed how his mother taught him to serve the country and the people using two letters that she had sent him during his premiership. 

Yang Zhiyun’s first letter, dated November 2003, observed that Wen was able to become a premier “without any backing” and noted “how difficult it must be.” She added, “It is in your character to strive for perfection, but the country is so large and the people are so many. It’s difficult to attain perfection.” Yang then told Wen to be “accessible, personable, and remember that it is difficult for a lone tree to become a forest (孤树难成林).” 

  • Analysis: Through his mother’s letter, Wen Jiabao is indicating that he is reform-minded and has reformist aspirations, but had no political backing at the time he was premier. And because “it is difficult for a lone tree to become a forest,” Wen, an official of humble origins and no revolutionary heritage, tried not to offend power CCP elites and forcefully have things done his way. In short, Wen Jiabao is citing the state of elite politics at the time—Jiang Zemin and his faction dominated the regime from 1997 to 2012—as a reason for why he failed to push through reform during his time as premier. 

Yang’s second letter, dated October 2007, noted that Wen’s accomplishments of the past five years were earned through hard work and that the next five years will be “difficult and complicated; maintaining [the accomplishments] will be easier said than done.” She added he should be thankful if he is even able to achieve half of what he did in the previous year given the size of China and its population, as well as the complex nature of the economy. “So many things; how wide must your shoulders be to bear such a burden? This requires everyone’s help in rowing the boat and steadily tiding [the country] over the next five years,” Wen’s mother wrote. 

  • Analysis: Wen Jiabao is indicating through his mother’s letter that he faced significant political risks during his first term in office and thus had achieved much given what he had to deal with. Yang Zhiyun’s use of the boat rowing metaphor is another way of reminding him not to offend the powerful CCP elite during his second term and safety pass those five years. 

Later in the essay, Wen Jiabao noted that his becoming an official was only something “accidental,” and that he always “obeyed orders with the utmost prudence and caution, as if I walked on thin ice or stood on the edge of a cliff.”

  • Analysis: Again, Wen is stressing how treacherous CCP elite politics are and the dangers of serving as an official. He is also hinting that he already made plans for retirement/leaving the officialdom right from the beginning, which would indicate that he lacks ambition. 

In concluding, Wen Jiabao remarked that he was unable to repay his mother for her kindness despite keeping her company for eight years after he retired. He then took the opportunity to express his political aspirations and sense of hopelessness at being unable to achieve them: “I sympathize with the poor and weak, and oppose bullying and oppression. In my eyes, China should be a country of justice and fairness, where there’s eternal respect for the will of the people, morality, and humanity, and there’s always youthfulness, freedom, and a striving spirit. I once shouted and struggled for it. This is the truth I learned in life, and also what my mother gave [to me].”

  • Analysis: What Wen expressed in the conclusion of his essay is entirely consistent with his thinking and what he said in official capacity during his 10 years as PRC premier. Wen publicly communicated his desire for political reform (albeit of the “social democratic”/“socialist system” variant) on numerous occasions, including during a visit to Shenzhen in 2010 and when noting in 2012 that historical tragedies like the Cultural Revolution could repeat without reform. Wen also frequently spoke about promoting justice, fairness, and dignity for the Chinese people (see here, here, and here). During a 2009 interview with Financial Times, Wen said, “Without the successful political restructuring, one can’t ensure success in our economic restructuring … The society that we desire is one of equity and justice, is one in which people can achieve all round development in a free and equal environment. That is also why I like Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments very much.” Wen’s criticism of moral decline in China in commenting on a poisoned milk powder scandal in April 2011 also saw him obliquely attacked in the first issue of the Central Committee-published Qiushi Magazine in 2012. The fact that Party elites saw fit to attack Wen Jiabao via Qiushi and on numerous other occasions, as well as his non-elite background, mean that Wen’s “people first” aspirations are mostly genuine, even if they also serve propaganda purposes. 

===

The “My Mother” essay was republished by Phoenix Web, NetEase, and other mainland news portals, but not by PRC state and Party propaganda outlets. On April 17, Chinese netizens found that they had been banned from sharing the article on WeChat for unspecified violations of the social media platform’s rules. Mainland news portals also scrubbed the essay. 

Many commentators, including mainland scholars, overseas Chinese self-media personalities, and even Western media outlets, called attention to the censorship of the Wen Jiabao essay. Some commentators argue that Wen’s opposition to “bullying and oppression” and call for “justice and fairness” are his way of saying that those values are absent (“justice and fairness”) or prevalent (“bullying and oppression”) in Communist China under Xi Jinping, and therefore Wen is indirectly criticizing and expressing opposition to Xi by publishing the essay in the current political climate. Others argue that Wen’s mention of his father and the Cultural Revolution, plus his concluding remarks, are an oblique attempt by the former premier to call out and reject what they interpret as Xi’s effort to graft the policies of Mao onto modern-day China. 

Expelled Party princeling Cai Xia argued in a tweet that Wen Jiabao already practiced “self-censorship” in his essay by not including the words “democracy” and “rule of law.” The fact that the essay was still censored shows the extent to which the current CCP leadership is afraid of democracy and the Chinese people, she added. 

OUR TAKE 
1. Based on publicly available information, we have no reason to suspect that Wen Jiabao’s essay in Macau Herald is inauthentic. The essay appears to be consistent with his style, and the political aspirations expressed are nothing new. Also, Wen’s mother did pass away in 2020 and the essay was published around the Qingming commemoration period. 

From our analysis above, it seems like Wen’s essay is simultaneously a genuine tribute to his late mother, a way to debunk previous accusations that she was corrupt and clear her name, as well as an attempt to clear his own name in light of corruption allegations, restate his people-oriented political ambitions, and express regret at failing to reform the regime. The fact that Wen’s essay was published in an obscure Macau newspaper (regardless of whether it was submitted by invitation or on his own volition) during an appropriate period shows that he probably saw it as a private, heart-felt statement instead of an ambitious political tract aimed squarely at criticizing Beijing. We would be more suspicious of Wen’s intent if the essay was published around “sensitive” periods for the regime (key persecution dates, important political conclaves, etc.) or contained more pointed references to Xi Jinping or Xi’s PRC. 

Arguments that Wen was launching a veiled criticism of Xi are difficult to substantiate. Most commentators cite the conclusion of the essay as the most obvious example of Wen’s opposition, but this is problematized by the fact that the ex-premier expressed identical views during his time in office. To today’s China watcher, the regime appears more authoritarian under Xi Jinping as compared to under the so-called “moderate collective leadership” of the Jiang faction. However, this can be largely attributed to the fact that many of the evils of the Jiang era (1997 to 2012) went unreported or under-reported given the pro-China international climate at the time. These issues remain under-reported today as the international community recalls “less authoritarian” days under Xi’s predecessors with rose-tinted lenses while expressing strong opposition to the current PRC leader. The CCP may demonstrate superficial “tolerance” of dissent when it is feeling confident and strong, such as during the Jiang era (which includes the Hu-Wen leadership), but it is no less authoritarian; as we laid out in a previous analysis, the Jiang faction “created the ‘Great Firewall of China’ that bifurcated the global internet; began the PRC’s military build-up; used the pretext of the 2009 Urumqi riots to start the persecution campaign against Uyghur Muslims; forcibly harvested the organs of Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience; perpetuated the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, House Christians, and other religious believers; and … covered up the spread of the SARS coronavirus in 2003 and commenced coronavirus research that may have culminated in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.” All those happened when Wen was in office, which gives some context to his repeated calls for “justice and fairness.” Put another way, Wen was unhappy with the state of Communist China years before Xi came to power. While Wen’s essay is a likely indication of his continued dissatisfaction with how things are in the regime today, claiming that Wen therefore opposes Xi is over-interpretation. 

In the same vein, readings of Wen’s anecdote about the Cultural Revolution and his father as a critique of Xi looking to Mao seem to draw from the tendency by China watchers to interpret Xi’s rule as an exercise in Maoist revival. However, any memoir by a CCP official of Wen’s age would have parents who went through the Cultural Revolution, and Xi’s father was himself a victim of Mao’s notorious political campaign. Such recallings of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s tyranny are fairly common, and do not automatically translate to attacks on the current leader. 

For argument’s sake, let us presume that Wen Jiabao meant to criticize Xi Jinping with his essay. Such a hypothetical move would be extremely risky for Wen personally seeing how he had no real political backing or power as PRC premier and next to no power as a retiree with his “commoner” background. The Jiang faction and other Party interest groups know this, and hence they let him play the “dissident” premier without much interference or pushback; unlike Xi’s PRC, the Jiang faction-controlled CCP regime faced far fewer crises back in the day and could afford to be more “tolerant” of opposing voices, especially when they pose no significant threat. Wen was also derided as an “on-screen emperor” (影帝) in the Jiang faction-manipulated public discourse because his talk of reform and “justice and fairness” was no better than a celluloid performance to deceive the Chinese people given his lack of power to implement actual change. Meanwhile, Party princelings mockingly referred to Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao as a pair of “wage earners” (打工仔). Wen knows full well that he was never a political threat to the CCP elite when he was premier nearly two decades ago, and is even less of a threat today to Xi Jinping. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Wen, long shunned by the CCP establishment elite, suddenly found the requisite political backing or motivation to attack his political ally Xi in a move that has no upside for either man. It is also highly unlikely that the Jiang faction suddenly decided to back Wen against Xi—they still bear a grudge against Wen for helping take out Bo Xilai, and continue to smear the former premier in his retirement.

As for reform, Wen Jiabao knows exactly what sort of difficulties Xi Jinping faces and would unlikely go hard on the latter over how the regime has shaped out today (see point 2). In fact, the bits of Wen’s essay about his being hampered by a lack of political support and power could just as easily be read as an indirect defense of Xi’s political situation and inability to reform the regime, especially to those familiar with the history and dynamics of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao struggle against the Jiang Zemin faction, as well as the ongoing Xi-Jiang factional struggle (see our special reports). Of course, it is very unlikely that Wen deliberately peppered his essay with anecdotes that are meant to be interpreted as a defense of his ally Xi; rather, this reading shows how easy it is for commentators to extract what they want to read from Wen’s essay to confirm personal bias and/or find analyses that fit the mainstream narrative on Xi Jinping. 

In considering regular CCP operations, there is nothing controversial at all about the censorship of Wen Jiabao’s essay. Lower ranking propaganda officials and censors are generally unaware of the dynamics of CCP elite politics and factions, but are preoccupied with shutting out “sensitive” words and phrases. What very likely happened with Wen’s essay was a case of the jumpy, self-interested CCP rank-and-file “preferring left rather than right” (寧左勿右) and censoring what seemed like Chinese netizens again talking about “justice and fairness” and criticizing “bullying and oppression” on the internet. And because CCP officials “prefer left rather than right,” they would rather censor an essay by a long-retired premier that was carried in an obscure publication than answer to their superiors later about why they allowed “justice and fairness” to trend on Chinese social media. There is a good chance that Xi Jinping and his associates may not even be aware that Wen had published a tribute to his mother until the censorship of the essay became mainstream news. Subsequent efforts to scrub the essay from mainland news portals are likely a reaction to the censorship of Wen Jiabao becoming international news and hence an actual matter of political sensitivity. 

2. As we explained at length in our special reports on CCP factional politics, Xi Jinping’s power consolidation and shift to “strongman” leadership are a large part a response to fierce opposition from the CCP establishment elites (the Jiang faction) and a need to overcome the same political resistance and bureaucratic inertia that faced Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao during their decade in office. As someone who is used to seeing “orders never passing beyond the gates of Zhongnanhai” (政令不出中南海) due to a lack of political support and power, Wen likely understands that Xi, a less renowned Party princeling with no factional alignment or influential political backers before taking office, needs to “signal a left to go right” if he is to reform the regime (being allies does not necessarily mean that Wen and Xi see eye-to-eye on the manner in which reform is carried out and other issues). After all, Wen noted through his mother that “it is difficult for a lone tree to become a forest” without political power. Thus, Wen and Hu backed Xi against the Jiang faction after the Bo Xilai scandal in 2012, and Wen’s public appearances and other gestures since then indicate that the political alliance remains intact. 

While the Hu-Wen-Xi alliance could yet be altered in the future, Wen Jiabao’s essay about his mother is not evidence of a fracture. We do not expect Wen, his relatives, and close associates to find themselves in trouble with Beijing over the essay. 

Xi’s actions early in his tenure suggest that he could harbor genuine intentions about reforming the regime, but we are pessimistic about his ability to push forward any effective reform, assuming he has or had such aspirations. “Signaling a left to go right” is still going left, and political power has a mind of its own; likewise, individuals can be influenced by the power they are given and the nature of that power. Whatever his ambitions before assuming his current role, there is no guarantee that Xi will guide China in a new direction in the event his factional rivals are fully eliminated and he truly rules unrivaled as Party “godfather.” Xi could find himself ultimately consolidating power for the sake of consolidating power, strengthening the atheistic, gangster regime and its malign rule instead of using his authority to implement political reform. 

3. The global attention on the censorship of Wen Jiabao’s essay has the potential of further escalating the Xi-Jiang factional struggle. The “anti-Xi coalition” (including foreigners who are proponents of an “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” strategy) would notice the outpouring of attacks against Xi Jinping and how easy it is to manipulate public opinion towards “Xi hate,” and find ways to exploit the situation to their advantage. In fact, some of the “over-interpretations” of Wen’s essay could have originated from factional interests that oppose Xi Jinping, with the goal of furthering the impression of “splits” between Xi and his allies to engender actual discord.   

The usually opaque “you die, I live” factional struggle between the Jiang faction and the Xi camp has become more obvious in recent months, particularly with Beijing targeting the Jiang faction-linked Jack Ma and developments pertaining to the negative political legacies of Xi Jinping (Xinjiang and Hong Kong) and Jiang Zemin (Falun Gong) gaining international attention. We expect the Xi-Jiang factional struggle to bubble more fully to the surface in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022, especially around “sensitive” periods like the CCP centennial celebration and near key political conclaves. 

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