Wednesday May 27, 2020


March 16, 2012


On March 14, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave his final press conference in the Great Hall of the People. After serving as Premier for nine years, Wen is expected to retire later this year as part of a larger leadership change in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the political implications of Wen’s final speech, which continued Wen’s career-long emphasis on the need for gradual political and economic reforms in China. Yet it seems to me his political views as expressed in that final press conference are but a reflection of his deep-seated desire to improve the lives of his fellow Chinese citizens. For that reason, I would like to approach Wen’s legacy from a more personal angle.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, there have been six premiers, from Zhou Enlai to Wen Jiabao. Thanks to my position as a Chinese-American scholar, I have been privileged to meet almost all of these premiers. However, Wen Jiabao made the deepest impression on me.

Wen Jiabao (left) and Chi Wang (right) meet in 2003

I first met Premier Wen soon after he assumed office in 2003, at a dinner given in his honor during his official visit to Washington, D.C. Wen was the guest of honor, but he greeted each person he met with warmth and genuine interest. He had obviously done the research necessary to know our names and positions. As the Chinese Premier greeted me by name, and asked me with utmost sincerity for my opinions on the circumstances of Chinese-Americans, I realized that Wen was not just another high-level politician. Instead, he projected caring and concern for both me personally and for Chinese-Americans in general. The Chinese government loves to emphasize the importance of “people-to-people diplomacy” in its relationship with America, but I have yet to meet an official who embodied this idea as Wen did. He is not only personable, but amazingly accessible.




Chi Wang (left) and Wen Jiabao (right) in the Purple Light Pavilion (2009)

In 2009, I was invited to Beijing to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations. Once again, I had an opportunity to meet Premier Wen. This time, he invited a small group of Americans to meet with him in Zhongnanhai’s Purple Light Pavilion. I was pleased to be included in such a meeting; as Premier of China, Wen had no real reason to meet with a scholar like myself except out of a desire to get to know me, and to learn more about the Chinese-American community through me. Once again, I left the meeting with the impression that Wen truly cared about me personally and about Chinese-Americans in general.

I came to admire Wen for his warmth, his sincerity, and his talent for casual interaction with every person he met. These same traits made Wen a beloved figure in China and around the world. Even people who have the smallest amount of knowledge about China remember the disastrous Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008. For many people, one of the defining images of the earthquake is Premier Wen arriving soon after it took place, along with the first wave of emergency aid. Wen’s emotional empathy for the earthquake victims and survivors caught the attention of Chinese and foreigners alike, earning him the nickname “Grandpa Wen” (which was the way he introduced himself to children in the devastated areas).

Not many politicians would use the nickname “Grandpa,” but Wen’s clear emotional connection with everyone he met made him seem more like a kindly family member than a politician. As Premier Wen prepares to retire, I can only hope that the next generation of Chinese leaders will follow his example and bring personal warmth and sincerity to their political interactions. After Wen has stepped down from office, I would gladly welcome him to visit the United States as a private citizen.

Premier Wen, thank you for your nine years of service. Even though you are retiring, I still hope that you will continue to visit America, bringing your matchless style of “people-to-people diplomacy.”

Chi Wang is the president and chair of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. He has been a Professor of History at Georgetown University since 1969.