Did China’s former Premier just subtly criticize President Xi Jinping?

Did China's former Premier just subtly criticize President Xi Jinping?

By James Griffiths and Nectar Gan, CNN

Editor’s Note: (This is a wrap of several top stories from China for April 19, 2021.)

Hong Kong(CNN)Under President Xi Jinping, China’s former leaders have grown accustomed to keeping their heads down.

But in an essay published this week, ostensibly a tribute to his late mother, former Premier Wen Jiabao appeared to issue what many have interpreted as a coded criticism of Xi: calling for fairness, justice, humanity and liberty, all while remembering a period of history the Communist Party would rather forget.

Wen’s words took Chinese social media by the storm. His essay was shared hundreds of thousands of times — before censors stepped in to stop people spreading it (yes, even the country’s second-highest official for a decade could not escape China’s increasingly stringent censorship).

The essay was published in an obscure newspaper in Macao, perhaps indicating no mainland Chinese outlet was willing to publish it. Wen could not be reached for comment about the piece.

A poignant tribute to his mother, who died in December, Wen’s essay touched on how his father, a teacher, was persecuted during the political and social upheaval of China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution. During which time he was placed under house arrest and subject to brutal interrogation, scolding and beating. After one particularly bad beating, his father’s face was so swollen it blocked his eyesight, Wen wrote.

And at the end of the essay, Wen outlined a vision for an ideal China — one that seemed to imply the country’s current state is not meeting the 78-year-old’s expectations.

“In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice,” Wen wrote. “There should always be respect for the will of the people, humanity and the nature of human beings. There should always be youthfulness, freedom and a striving spirit.”

While to outsiders his criticism may be so subtle as to not merit censorship, for close followers of Chinese politics, an intervention by a party elder like Wen is remarkable, particularly as the government is cracking down on even the slightest deviations from the official narrative in the run-up to the Communist Party’s centenary this July.

“Given the political climate, his speaking out itself is an important act — and a veiled criticism against Xi,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing.

China’s Premier from 2003 to 2013, Wen was widely considered to be a relatively liberal, reformist figure within the Chinese leadership. He was once a top aide to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was purged for opposing the violent crackdown against protesters on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June, 1989.

And he has been censored before: in an interview in 2010, Wen told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that freedom of speech was “indispensable” and the Chinese people’s wishes for democracy and freedom were “irresistible.” After briefly going viral, the video was scrubbed from the Chinese internet.

Compared to those comments, Wen’s essay this week is far milder in tone, but the climate has changed dramatically, with both freedom of speech and any aspirations for democracy and freedom taking a major hit under Xi.