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China’s Premier Admits Failings, but Defends Image

Feng Li | Getty Images

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.

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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.

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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.

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He shined as the party's chief crisis manager, campaigning for public accountability after disasters like the SARS epidemic of 2003, the earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, and a deadly high-speed-train crash in 2011. He paid visits to Chinese AIDS patients and petitioners — unusual for a Chinese leader — and advanced policies aimed at curbing breakneck growth and creating a more balanced, energy-efficient economy.

Even as the party held tight to its authoritarian ways, Mr. Wen repeatedly, if vaguely, championed greater democracy, rule of law and human rights.

But his government's record was marred by surging housing costs, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and the growing power of China's domestic security apparatus and state-owned enterprises.

(Read More: China Puts Focus on Consumers to Drive Growth)

Behind the scenes, Mr. Wen made many political enemies among provincial and state industry bosses who opposed his government's stopgap macroeconomic controls, as well as among party hard-liners who scorned his advocacy of political reform. In late 2010, after he issued a string of calls for political change, Mr. Wen faced criticism from fellow Standing Committee leaders in a party ritual known as a "democratic life meeting," according to two party officials.

But during the annual legislative session last March, Mr. Wen renewed his push for change in dramatic fashion. Addressing the news media, he warned that another Cultural Revolution might occur without political reform, while reprimanding the Chongqing municipality's government over a seismic political scandal that had begun to unfold there.

The next morning, the party announced the dismissal of Chongqing's flashy party chief, Bo Xilai, who had mobilized a state-centered reform drive and revolutionary-style campaigns to squash organized crime and restore Maoist values.

The neo-leftist Mr. Bo and the liberal Mr. Wen were seen as political adversaries and archetypes of clashing reform camps. Party insiders say Mr. Wen played an active role in blocking Mr. Bo's promotion and in backing his downfall last year.

Mr. Bo, who has been incommunicado since his detention last spring, is awaiting prosecution on accusations of corruption and interfering in a murder investigation that led to the conviction of his wife in the killing of a British businessman.

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Many intellectuals and party elites have come to view recent political scandals in the context of that rivalry. Spurred by Mr. Xi, the new leadership has begun a campaign against corruption and wasteful spending, shutting down New Year's banqueting and firing dozens of officials, many exposed by online whistle-blowers. Two cabinet officials connected to Mr. Wen, including his former personal secretary, have come under investigation by party disciplinary authorities, people with knowledge of the cases said. Both men remain in their posts.

In his waning months in office, Mr. Wen has continued to battle critics over China's economic stimulus spending and the vested interests that stand in the way of his cherished initiatives. Last month, his government unveiled a long-delayed blueprint to narrow China's wealth gap, but the plan will require concrete steps to curtail the profit-taking of state corporations and increase workers' wages as promised.

Legislation to reform the rural land requisition system and shield peasants from land grabs and meager compensation remains mired in contention. In January, parts of a dam project in southwest China that Mr. Wen had ordered shelved over environmental concerns were officially revived.

One Western diplomat recalled an emotional dinner meeting in September in Brussels during which Mr. Wen quoted George Bernard Shaw and other European writers while addressing senior European Union officials. "It was a very sentimental performance," the diplomat said. "But also I think heartfelt. I think he really does regret not having achieved more."

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