Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China, well known for baring his emotions in public, has displayed a blend of defeatism and defensiveness as he winds down his decade in office. During a visit last month to a Muslim neighborhood here, Mr. Wen lamented that he "fell short in some tasks" to improve people's livelihoods. "In my heart I feel guilty and constantly blame myself," he said.
But his most intriguing comments have touched on corruption. During a cabinet meeting last month, he said that even among top officials, "abuse of power, trading power for cash, and collusion between officialdom and commerce continue unabated." And in a vague mea culpa before a group of overseas Chinese in Thailand late last year, Mr. Wen admitted to unidentified failings but defended his integrity by paraphrasing an ancient Chinese statesman said to have taken his own life to protest imperial corruption. "In the pursuit of truth, I would die nine times without regret," he said.
With his retirement looming at the end of the annual meeting of China's legislature that begins Tuesday, Mr. Wen, 70, has been struggling to push through economic changes and to shore up his image as a frugal populist and one of the few Communist Party leaders to champion political reform, even if that push has come to naught. But he has also has been pressing hard to clear his name, particularly in the months since The New York Times published accounts of the way his immediate family had become extraordinarily rich during his time in high office.
Just days after the first of the two newspaper reports was published in late October, Mr. Wen asked the top party leadership to investigate the assertions about his family's business dealings and to publicize the results, according to several people with high-level party ties. In a letter to members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Mr. Wen staunchly defended himself and his family and offered to submit to punishment if they were found to have violated laws or disciplinary rules that, in theory, hold top leaders responsible for relatives who trade on their proximity to power.
At one point, according to two of these people, Mr. Wen even suggested he might not deliver his final work report in the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday if he was not vindicated, although in the end he did speak.
Senior leaders rebuffed Mr. Wen's request for an investigation at the time, the party insiders said, and according to two of these people, China's new party leader, Xi Jinping, has expressed his support to Mr. Wen and encouraged him to complete his job.
The Times investigation documented what many Chinese business executives and party insiders have long gossiped about: that Mr. Wen's wife, son and brother, among other close relatives, had amassed enormous assets, at one point amounting to at least $2.7 billion, mostly through interests in the insurance and gemstone industries. The articles detailed the way Mr. Wen's relatives had benefited from their political connections, but they found no evidence that Mr. Wen had profited personally or committed specific improprieties related to the business deals.
(Read More: China Real Estate Won't Bring It Down: Roach)
To his many supporters in China, the articles have reinforced portrayals of Mr. Wen as a tragic idealist who could not effectively manage his own family, let alone the country. But critics, who include dissidents and leftists, have called him a hypocrite befitting the label of China's "best actor," an epithet Mr. Wen acquired within the Chinese blogosphere in recent years.
"It throws into doubt his clean, upright image and adds to the impression that he's helpless and lacks credibility," said Liu Suli, a prominent commentator who owns a bookstore in the capital.
Mr. Wen, the son of a teacher whose family was viciously persecuted in the Cultural Revolution, trained as a geologist and rose from obscurity to lead the party Central Committee's General Office from 1985 to 1993. Toeing the party line as political winds shifted, he survived the purge of two liberal party chiefs he served.
In his 10 years as prime minister, Mr. Wen cultivated a public persona as Grandpa Wen, an emotive guardian of the underclass and a lyrical defender of essential liberties. But he was increasingly seen as an outlier among the party leadership.