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Triumph and regret as China's Wen bows out
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) March 5, 2013


Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave his last major political speech on Tuesday after overseeing a decade of blistering economic growth, but failing to close a yawning wealth gap or make major political reforms.

China's achievements during his tenure include its first manned spaceflight, developing the world's largest high-speed rail network, strengthening the military and hosting Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games.

As the country's top economic official, Wen oversaw years of double-digit growth that saw it overtake Japan to become the world's second largest economy and a key player on the world stage.

But inequality grew during his tenure according to official statistics, despite his pledges to reduce the income gap between China's cities and the impoverished countryside.

He also failed to transform the country's growth model, which has slowed in recent years and, analysts say, is dangerously reliant on investment and exports.

Wen started his career as a geologist in China's remote western provinces and worked his way up through Party ranks, to emerge as the public face of the government.

Avuncular and down-to-earth, he cultivated an image as a people's champion and won praise for his baby-hugging visits to victims of natural disasters, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed at least 70,000 people.

Seen as a liberal within the Communist party -- a protege of reformist official Hu Yaobang whose 1989 death sparked the Tiananmen Square protests -- the 70-year-old raised hopes of political reform in the Communist country.

In one interview with foreign media he stated "the people's wishes for, and needs for, democracy and freedom are irresistible".

But such terms often have different meanings in China than in the West, and Communist officials regularly say a Western-style democracy is not suitable for the country.

Under his leadership notions of reform stalled as the government put more resources into cracking down on dissidents and tightening controls on the Internet, while the country's online population became the world's largest.

As China's ruling party continued to be blighted by corruption scandals, Wen's own reputation was tarnished by reports, suppressed in China, that his family had amassed huge wealth, having controlled assets worth $2.7 billion.

Winding up his closing speech Wen struck a triumphant chord, vowing the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation", to thunderous applause.

Recent remarks, however, appear to exhibit a tinge of regret.

"Although I did my best, I still think I fell short in some tasks," he said during a February visit to a Muslim district in Beijing. "In my heart I feel guilty and constantly blame myself."

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