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Wen Jiabao’s Stunning Admission at Train Crash Site [Wall Street Journal]


The Wall Street Journal reports an ‘unusual’ admission of illness, something Chinese leaders rarely do. Now could this be a measured move, or increasing humanisation the Chinese leadership’s legitimacy to lead.

‘When rumors surfaced this month that former president Jiang Zemin was gravely ill or possibly even dead, censors on China’s most popular microblogging site went so far as to block all searches containing the Chinese word for “river,”or jiang, in an effort to quash the discussion.’

Premier Wen in this instance shares that he has been bed-ridden for eleven days, which was why it took him five days to visit the crash site of the Wenzhou high-speed rail collision.

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Wen Jiabao’s Stunning Admission at Train Crash Site
Josh Chin
Source – Wall Street Journal China Realtime Report, published July 28, 2011 

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, center, visits at the site of the Saturday July 23, 2011 train crash, in Wenzhou, east China’s Zhejiang province, Thursday, July 28, 2011. Photo: AP

This post has been changed since it was first posted. See below.

Why did it take Chinese premier Wen Jiabao five days to visit the site of Saturday’s deadly high-speed train collision near Wenzhou?

The answer, according to Mr. Wen: He was sick.

In a striking admission, the 69-year-old leader affectionately known as Grandpa Wen said Thursday that his arrival in Wenzhou had been delayed because he’d been laid up in bed for 11 days. “Over this time I’ve been ill,” Mr. Wen said at a news conference, though he didn’t say what the illness was. “The doctor only today reluctantly allowed me to travel.”

It is extremely rare for the ailments of China’s top leaders to be discussed publicly, let alone by the leaders themselves.

When rumors surfaced this month that former president Jiang Zemin was gravely ill or possibly even dead, censors on China’s most popular microblogging site went so far as to block all searches containing the Chinese word for “river,”or jiang, in an effort to quash the discussion. State-media later dismissed reports of Mr. Jiang’s death as “pure rumor.”

The admission is even more striking coming from Mr. Wen, who has always gone to great lengths to project an image of vitality.

As recently as May, the diminutive leader could be seen dribbling a basketball between his legs and driving aggressively to the hoop against children half-a-century younger on a playground at a Beijing elementary school.

“As far as my health is concerned, everyone can see that I still have lots of energy,” the premier said at a news conference in 2010, noting that he still found time to take walks and swim despite a busy schedule: “It helps me to relax so that I can maintain my vigorous energy to deal with the weighty work.”

Some observers have dismissed the revelation of Mr. Wen’s illness as an excuse designed to play on the sympathies of a public widely frustrated with the government’s opaque handling of the train collision.

In a post following Thursday’s news conference, McClatchy Newspapers’ China Rises blognoted a report from the state-run Xinhua news agency saying that Mr. Wen had met with a Japanese trade delegation on July 24, the day after the train collision. Xinhua also published a photo showing Mr. Wen shaking hands with the head of the delegation.

Mr. Wen, who turns 70 in September, has rarely shied away from public tragedies in the past. He was on the ground within hours after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, mourning the dead and consoling survivors, and has made prompt appearances at a number of disaster sites since.

While it remains unclear whether his illness is serious, or whether it persists, news that Mr. Wen, arguably the most popular of China’s top leaders, might be having health problems doesn’t bode well for the Communist Party. The party faces a once-in-a-decade leadership change in 2012 amid growing signs of unrest around the country. With the train accident having unleashed an outpouring of outrage online, now is possibly the worst time for the government’s most sympathetic leader to be struggling to get out of bed.

CLARIFICATION: Wen Jiabao told reporters at Thursday’s news conference that doctors had only that day allowed him to travel. A previous version of this post, relying on a poor translation by the state-run Xinhua news agency, reported Wen saying doctors had only that day allowed him to leave the hospital.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin

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Filed under: Automotive, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Disaster, High Speed Rail, Influence, Media, Nationalism, People, Politics, Population, Public Diplomacy, Social, Strategy, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Transport, Wall Street Journal

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