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Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s essay on his mother is rattling Xi Jinping’s China

Wen Jiabao was Chinese premier from 2003 to 2013. His essay on his mother is more than what Xi’s China can like, share, subscribe.

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Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s personal essay in Macau Herald has set off debate and censorship on Chinese social media. Wen Jiabao was the premier of China from 2003-2013.

Wen Jiabao’s essay was part of a four-column series on his time in a leadership role and his life after leaving office. The article was published in an obscure Macao newspaper called the Macau Herald. The choice of newspaper suggests that mainland mainstream media outlets may not have been interested in publishing the article.

In the latest article, ‘My Mother’, published on 16 April, Wen Jiabao wrote a tribute to his mother who passed away in December last year.

The article was posted on his official WeChat account (学人scholar) and widely shared on the social media platform. But, on 17 April, WeChat users noticed that they couldn’t share the article within their network. Users attempting to share the article got a message that read: “This article violates WeChat’s terms of operation”. No copies of the article turned up on searching the Twitter-like social media platform Sina Weibo. One Weibo user’s comment read: “On official account of ‘scholar’, an article ‘My Mother’, is worth reading”.

Also read: China is an enemy of freedom of thought. It wants the same from other powerful nations

Frogs in pressure cookers

“In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice, where there will always be respect for the human heart, humanity and human nature, and always have the temperament of youth, freedom and struggle. I have screamed and fought for this. This is the truth that life taught me, and it was also given by my mother,” Wen Jiabao wrote in the article.

Wen’s article also recalls the harrowing decade of the Cultural Revolution when his father – a teacher – was persecuted. He wrote that his father was put under house arrest and brutally beaten up during the Mao era. Wen has previously spoken about the treatment of his family during the Cultural Revolution.

“After I went to high school and university, my family suffered constant attacks in the successive political campaigns,” Wen had told the audience at Nankai High School in 2011.

Cai Xia, a former teacher at the party school of the Communist Party of China and now an exiled dissident in the US, pointed out on Twitter that even a personal essay with no reference to democracy or freedom of speech was usually censored.

“If you read the full text of the article, the article has actually been ‘self-censored’, and there is no ‘democracy’ or ‘rule of law’ in the whole article. Even so, the article is still prohibited from being forwarded and shared. This shows how fearful the totalitarian regime in mainland China is about ‘democracy and the rule of law’. They fear the rights of the people,” said Cai Xia on Twitter.

One Chinese netizen said in response to Wen’s essay: “In Wen’s time, frogs were boiled in warm water. In Xi’s time, frogs are directly stewed in pressure cooker. In fact, it was just a way of cutting leeks to suppress farts”. The comment points to the stringent implementation of censorship under Xi Jinping, which seeks to quickly control dissemination of views critical of the party and himself.

On at least two occasions, Wen Jiabao’s comments in support of political reform and freedom of speech were censored on Chinese news websites. In a 2010 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Wen Jiabao said, “I believe, freedom of speech is indispensable for any country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution”. The CNN interview was censored on Sina Weibo.

Also read: In China, two ‘subjects’ questioned ‘emperor’ Xi and they disappeared from public view

Xi Jinping era is different

Wen Jiabao is considered to hold liberal views and has spoken about democracy and freedom of speech in China during his time as premier. In 1989, Wen visited the pro-democracy protesters in the Tiananmen Square massacre along with reformist leader Zhao Ziyang.

Xi Jinping’s era is markedly different from Wen Jiabao’s premiership because of the tight control on critical views of the Communist Party and its policies expressed by political elites.

Cai Xia says that Xi Jinping’s personal style of politics is to blame for weak internal debate about the future direction of the Communist Party.

“But for one person to do ill over a long time, and for the whole party to not utter a word, that clearly shows that the party’s system and bodies have big problems,” Cai told The New York Times in a 2020 interview.

Also read: If you want to know how China thinks under Xi Jinping, start with his new year speeches

Ren Zhiqiang, a former real estate tycoon and outspoken critic of Xi Jinping, was sentenced to 18 years in jail because he was found “guilty of corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds”. Dubbed as “Big Cannon Ren” on Sina Weibo, Zhiqiang had over 37 million followers on the platform before his accounts were purged in 2016.

Wen Jiabao’s mild opining about his mother and life in office couldn’t pass through the ever-tightening mesh of Xi’s sieve.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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  1. For those in India, who are talking authoritarianism and from every platform ridicule the PM and the Govt, see what authoritarianism really is! It is a new & dangerous idea being developed in India by certain discontents that implementing economic & social ideas that a majority has voted for is wrong. We will find people in India being very complimentary of China and their way of working at the same time criticizing the current govt of majoritarianism.

  2. Xi’s China has been better for the Chinese than Wang’s.
    (I reiterate not for Phillipines, not for India, not for Japan but for the mainland Chinese themselves)

    We can comment on what government makes more sense from our euro-centric view of government but bottom line is a question of whether the Chinese people approve of this government and the answer is a resounding yes.

    My sources : My wife is Chinese, My conversations with Chinese from both North and Canton regions. They do silently diss on the Cultural Revolution, but they are quite happy with where China is today.

  3. It seems China is boiling internally. It remains to be seen for how many more years can China suppress the heat.

  4. This is exactly like the Congress mindset, a la a replica of Mohammedanism too.
    Remember Mohammed asking his who in his Ansar will quieten the critical poetess a mother of two….
    Next day she is killed in front of her children…
    A la Indira Gandhi..who to hide her electoral fraud….put the entire opposition and tried to smother judiciary as well as rule of law for a whole year or Sanjay Gandhi going around conducting forced sterilisation….. Ethnic cleansing of Hindus, couched as population control.

  5. Free the Uighers!
    Investigate Biden Crime family!
    China steals intellectual property and technology!
    Contain China! World enemy#1
    Iran, China, N. Korea= Axis of Evil!

  6. One gone.(Trump)
    Three remain. (Putin, Xi, Modi)
    After which with all the bullies out we should get back to normal/good times.

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