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"The People's Premier" Speaks at Harvard

Following in the footsteps of China President Jiang Zemin, who stunned the world in 1997 by admitting during a speech to Harvard students that “mistakes” had been made in the Tiananmen Square massacre, China Premier Wen Jiabao spoke to Harvard students on December 10th amid tight security.

Though smaller in scale than the one thousand-plus protestors who greeted President Jiang five years earlier, protestors did gather before Premier Wen’s speech, displaying signs to voice their views on Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights. Inside Burden auditorium approximately 750 Harvard students listened to Premier Wen speak enthusiastically about the common ground between the two countries. Many came away pleasantly surprised.

Lei Chen (NC) said, “I am very impressed by his intelligence, sincerity and humility. I have read a lot about him as ‘the People’s Premier’ before, but not until I attended his speech [was] I …totally convinced.”

First year HBS student Zheng Huang (NJ) described Premier Wen as “dynamic’, ‘articulate’, and ‘very personable.” Second year student Aaron Wen (OE) came away “quite impressed with his humbleness” and “his eagerness to communicate with American young people and his openness to questions.”

HBS finance professor Li Jin said Premier Wen “strikes me as a very sincere and passionate man, who has the caliber, both intellectually and emotionally, to handle the job as China’s Premier…it is evident to me that the Premier understands the challenges and I am very hopeful that he can do a good job.”

Premier Wen skillfully leveraged his humble and war-torn past to bond with his audience and to illustrate that he well understands the plight of China’s rural poor. As a young child whose home and family both burned in war, he endured harsh working conditions growing up and today, “I’m often torn with anxiety and unable to eat or sleep with ease when I think of the fact that there are still 30 million farmers lacking food, clothing and shelter, 23 million city dwellers living on subsistence allowances and 60 million disabled and handicapped people in need of social security aid.”

A hallmark of his style is to align himself on the same level as the person or group to whom he is speaking. When speaking once with a group of students during the SARS crisis, the students likened themselves to a tree, saying that they were the leaves and asked the Premier what he was. “I’m a leaf like you,” he replied.

The able politician also shrewdly quoted American authors and presidents throughout his speech to support his points. Invoking President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later Thomas Jefferson, Premier Wen said, “true freedom cannot exist without economic security,” and he acknowledged that human rights reforms and economic growth are equally important, mutually reinforcing and should be pursued simultaneously. He also cited President Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the union during the American civil war in an effort to gain support for China’s policy on Taiwan.

Premier Wen delighted the crowd by choosing to answer questions from the audience rather than those chosen by the administrators.

Lei Chen (NC) said, “I was particularly impressed by his openness to audience’s questions. He actually suggested to open it up.” Another student commented, “I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Premier ended up encouraging questions from the audience during his Q&A as opposed to answering sanitized versions….”

However, if former President Jiang’s experience is any indicator, Harvard students do not ask “softball” questions, nor do the administrators pick them. In 1997 the first question chosen was submitted by the Joint Committee for Protesting Jiang Zemin’s visit to Harvard: “Why did the Chinese government order tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and confront the Chinese people?” The second question concerned Tibet and a third asked whether he could hear the protestors outside the auditorium.

President Jiang at that time compared speaking at Harvard to taking an exam.

This time Premier Wen fielded one pre-selected question as to when China would be holding free elections before he opened it up to the floor. He was asked about the next Olympics in China and what he was doing to encourage American imports, to which he described a new, high-level joint U.S.-China commission co-chaired on the U.S. side by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the U.S. ambassador to China. Premier Wen also listed new deals, including $3 billion for jet engines from GE and $1.7 billion for Boeing planes.

For some, though, China’s long track record of abusing and bloodying its own its own citizens preempted the Premier’s warm words. One woman who asked not to be identified said, “I found Wen’s speech typical and somewhat hypocritical…I’m skeptical because this is the head of a country whose dictator, (Mao Zedong) that killed close to 30 million Chinese people throughout his reign is still celebrated in the center of the capital.”

Asked if the Tibet question would have been posed to the Premier, Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn, who handled President Jiang’s visit, said yes, “time permitting.” (Speakers in the past haven’t always appreciated the question and answer sessions that Harvard requires of all its speaking guests, and as such, some try to end early.)

According to several members of the audience, two people seated on the
right of the auditorium stood up and turned their backs to Premier Wen.

The backs of their shirts displayed a message to the Premier, which one audience member translated as a Taiwan-related protest. These silent protestors were followed by an undergraduate senior identified by the Crimson newspaper as Meghan Howard ’04, who held a Tibetan flag and shouted for China to free Tibet. She was quickly escorted out. However, the silent protestors remained, steadfastly displaying their message across their backs throughout the speech.

Others simply stayed away.

“As a Taiwanese-American (my parents were both eighth generation Taiwanese natives), I did not enter the lottery for the Premier’s speech partially as a protest against China’s recent rhetoric of possible military aggression against Taiwan…the continued threats from the Chinese government, coupled with the human rights abuses and oppression that have occurred in the country in the past, allows me to give no respect for the Premier,” said a student who asked not to be identified. “If not for a final I had to take Wednesday morning, I would have been part of the peaceful protest planned by The Taiwanese Association of America.”

Proud as he is of China’s economic performance, its hosting of the next Olympics, its first manned space flight, and recent support on Tawain from President Bush, Premier Wen will have to be the ultimate salesman to convince the world that China is sincere about human rights, while convincing the Chinese government that their standard of living will indeed continue to improve as their human rights record improves.

He must also figure out how to allay the world’s fear of his country as it becomes more and more powerful–thus, Wen made eleven references to China as a peaceful country. Harvard Professor Alastair Iain Johnston, moderator for the academic panel discussion that preceded the Premier’s speech, cited a “breakthrough in that past Chinese leaders tended to ignore or discount or misunderstand the unintended and negative consequences of Chinese actions on its own security…the fact that this new leadership recognizes the possibility that China’s own actions could create negative security effects means that they are more sensitive to the views of other states about China’s rise. That’s a good thing.”

Still, Premier Wen faces a daunting task, both inside and outside his country. The Kennedy School’s Professor Tony Saich, who also participated in the panel, concluded, “I don’t think anybody would envy Premier Wen Jiabao when he gets up in the morning.”

January 12, 2004
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