China’s Ex-Leader Seems to Have Published a Rare Column. Now It’s Censored.

China’s former No. 2 leader, Premier Wen Jiabao, appears to have made rare public remarks on his tenure and the future of the country.
April 19, 2021, 11:53am
Wen Jiabao censorship Xi Jinping
Wen Jiabao talks with then-Vice President Xi Jinping at China’s parliamentary meeting in 2012. Photo: LIU JIN / AFP

Chinese social media sites have banned users from sharing a heartfelt column, purportedly written by the country’s former premier, which calls for a China with justice, freedom, and respect for humanity.

Retired leaders rarely make public remarks in China, and the column said to be by former Premier Wen Jiabao could have touched the nerve of current Chinese leaders as a veiled criticism of their tightening control over Chinese society, analysts say.

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Wen was widely adored for his compassionate image when he was serving as the country’s No. 2 leader from 2003 to 2013, but he has rarely engaged with the public after his retirement. 

The column, titled “My Mother,” was first published as a four-part series in Macau Herald, a newspaper based in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, from March 25 to April 15. It describes at length what Wen’s family went through in China’s tumultuous years, including during the Sino-Japanese War and the Cultural Revolution, and looks back at his work as a Chinese leader.

Citing the teachings of Wen’s mother, the article makes a daring appeal for a more just China.

“I sympathize with the poor and the weak, and I’m against bullying and oppression,” it reads. “China in my heart should be a country with fairness and justice. There will always be respect for people’s inner self, humanity, and the essence of people; and always have spirits of youthfulness, freedom, and fighting.” 

The article has prompted praise and nostalgia in China after it was widely shared on Chinese social media over the weekend. But Weibo and WeChat have since banned users from sharing the piece. Attempts to share the article on WeChat by VICE World News on Monday return an error message: “This article violates ‘WeChat public platform terms of operation.’ This article has been banned from being shared.” WeChat, which does not usually explain its censorship decisions, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics with the University of California, San Diego, said the article, while focused on Wen’s reminiscence about his mother, also signals a dissatisfaction of where China is going.

“For many Chinese, including many officials, who harbor secret grudges or disagreement with Xi, this message will assure them that they potentially have high-level allies in the government,” Shih said. “This is why the Chinese government ordered the censoring of this seemingly innocent letter.” 

No mainstream newspapers directly owned by the Chinese government have reprinted the piece, and several copies that were originally posted by major news portals in China, including NetEase and iFeng.com, have been taken down. 

An editor at Macau Herald surnamed Li, who declined to provide his full name, said the privately-owned newspaper had verified the article, but refused to comment on how the former premier had gotten in touch with the outlet.

“It was an ordinary submission that came to our email,” Li said. “It was by a famous person, and would work well after getting published. We also found the content quite moving and really down to earth.”

VICE World News could not independently verify whether Wen authored the article or reach the former premier.

Xinhua Tiananmen Zhao Ziyang

Wen Jiabao (center right) and Zhao Ziyang (center left) visit protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo: Xinhua / AFP

Wen was regarded as a relatively liberal-leaning figure in the Communist Party leadership. He accompanied reformist leader Zhao Ziyang in visiting protesters on Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy movement. As premier, Wen called for political reforms and discussed topics such as free speech and democracy during interviews with CNN and the Washington Post. Wen’s comments on free speech were censored in China.

The article says Wen stayed cautious while working in the leadership, describing the experience as “like walking on thin ice, like standing on the edge of an abyss.”

After Wen left office alongside then-Chinese President Hu Jintao, the leadership of Xi Jinping stepped up control of all aspects of Chinese society and adopted assertive diplomatic policies. The kind of criticism of China’s political system that was allowed under Hu’s leadership has become more prone to crackdown.

Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst, said it was highly unusual for a retired leader to express personal political opinions, especially at a time when the Chinese leadership was tightening ideological control to mark this year’s 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. 

He said the negative portrayal of the Cultural Revolution, memories of China’s engagements with the West, and an emphasis on humanity and justice reflect the ex-premier’s discontent toward the existing political climate. Wen had chosen the publication in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of Macau possibly because no state-run media in mainland China was able to publish it, Wu said.