Wen succeeds Zhu—who championed his promotion to Premier and to the nine-member politburo Standing Committee—carrying a reputation as a buttoned-down technocrat who lacks not only his mentor's fiery bravado but also his business savvy. Even during his four-year stint as Vice Premier, Wen was rarely called upon to deal with foreigners or promote market economics. Some question whether he has the clear vision and political will to run China's contentious Cabinet while managing a trillion-dollar economy, overseeing the layoffs of millions of angry workers in state companies and forcing another round of market-friendly reforms on the entrenched bureaucracy. "If he remains wishy-washy, we'll get policy paralysis that will threaten reforms," says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.
Wen learned as he worked his way up to keep his own policy views to himself; his success in ascending party ranks was due more to his efficiency than to his leadership. Before being transferred to Beijing in 1982, he toiled for 14 years as a low-level apparatchik in impoverished Gansu province in western China. His are the political instincts of a prairie dog in falcon country; he twice survived purges by keeping his head down while those of his immediate supervisors were rolling. During the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, Wen was firmly in the camp of reformists and protodemocrats as an aide to party chief Zhao Ziyang. Zhao failed in his bid to oust authoritarian party elders during Tiananmen and has lived under house arrest ever since. Wen avoided that fate by telling interrogators he was just obeying his boss. Now he's one of China's most powerful men. "I suspect he supports political reform," says a liberal editor at a party-run newspaper, "but he won't take risks for it."
By all accounts, Wen has traits that have come to define China's latest crop of leaders, including incoming President Hu: a mild demeanor, punctilious organizational skills and competence as an administrator. Those attributes have not always been enough. Zhu promoted Wen to Vice Premier in 1998 and tapped him to run the problem-plagued financial and agricultural sectors. Despite efforts to make the country's banks stop lending to money-losing state enterprises, bad loans continue to mount, jeopardizing the nation's financial system. Agriculture has also fared poorly under Wen, with farmers' incomes stagnating while China's economy grows at 8% a year. Even when Wen could possibly have mitigated the mistakes of his boss, he chose to keep characteristically taciturn. According to a Chinese professor who discussed with him Zhu's decision to create a state grain monopoly in 1998, Wen "had feelings against the policy but didn't dare speak up." After the government wasted $12 billion supporting its monopoly for two years, Zhu finally authorized Wen to reintroduce markets.
Still, some observers say Wen's low-key consensus-building approach may ultimately be the best way to finish what his boss started. "Whether he comes off as charismatic really doesn't matter," says a Western businessman. China has accomplished much of the necessary broad-brush reforms and now needs to do the detail work—a task for which Wen is well suited.