Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is known for his populist approach and near constant presence in Chinese headlines. He often races to the scene of natural disasters to comfort survivors. On state-run television, he can be seen eating with the poor in rural villages. Though often stage-managed by Chinese news media, his common touch has earned him the nickname “Grandpa Wen.”
But this week, the 68-year-old prime minister made what many analysts consider a bolder statement: he appeared at the nation’s top petition bureau in Beijing, where people go to file grievances, and encouraged citizens to criticize the government and press their cases for justice.
“We are the people’s government, and our power is vested upon us by the people,” the prime minister said during the visit, according to state-run news media. “We should use the power in our hands to serve the interest of the people, helping them to tackle difficulties in a responsible way.”
The crucial factor was the setting. The national petition bureau is known as a lightning rod for anger about official corruption, illegal land seizures, labor disputes and complaints of all sort, the kind of problems that reveal China’s continuing weakness on the rule of law. In a nation that fiercely snuffs out any sign of dissent or challenges to the ruling Communist Party, the government sometimes deems it appropriate to detain petitioners here or to forcibly send them back home.
But on Wednesday, the state-run news media showed images of the prime minister meeting two days earlier with a small group of petitioners at the bureau, officially known as the State Bureau for Letters and Calls. The state-controlled media reports said he encouraged government workers to handle the petitioner cases properly.
Mr. Wen also instructed officials to make it easier for citizens to criticize and monitor the government. The reports said it was the first time a prime minister had appeared at the bureau to meet petitioners since the founding of the Communist state in 1949.
In recent months, Mr. Wen has appeared to press for political reform, though analysts are uncertain about whether he is pushing on his own or with the support of a broader segment of the nation’s leadership.
The media gave prominent display to articles about the visit on Wednesday, and blogs and Internet forums in China were buzzing with chatter about the visit.
More than 6,000 postings about the visit appeared on the popular Web site Netease.com, many of them praising the prime minister.
But there was also some criticism. On Sina.com’s popular Chinese microblog, someone named Langzi wrote, “Shouldn’t Wen be more concerned about how laws and rules are enforced?” Another blogger added, “Chinese people are still dreaming that a lord will come and implement justice.”
Lu Yuegang, a journalist who writes about the plight of petitioners, called Mr. Wen’s visit a positive move but said the petition system was flawed and that the government should abolish it and work on implementing the rule of law with judicial independence.
“The petition system has almost zero effect,” he said in an interview. “Most petitions received by the state bureau are sent back to the local governments, the place where the cases originate. The system is not a problem-solving system but a receiving-and-forwarding system. And it just recycles the cases. This is the core problem.”
And Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that Mr. Wen had become adept at showing his concern for the poor but that the nation’s legal system was still ineffective, the very reason so many petitioners travel to Beijing.
“Premier Wen consistently talks the talk on the crucial issues facing China,” Mr. Kine said in a telephone interview. “But can the government really make the changes necessary to fix a broken system?
“The court system doesn’t work, and these people can’t get legal redress.”