An unwelcome compliment?: Wen Jiabao makes the Time 100 list

When Time magazine announced its latest Time 100 list of most-influential world figures on May 1, five people on the list were Chinese – PRC Premier Wen Jiabao, film director Ang Lee, Gome Electronics founder Huang Guangyu, rights activist Chen Guangcheng and journalist Ma Jun. The last two figures did not appear in already sparse Chinese media coverage of the list due to the general sensitivity of the grassroots activism associated with them. Wen Jiabao’s appearance, an embarrassing upstaging of China’s top leader, President Hu Jintao, was also a very sensitive issue. Five newspapers, though, simply couldn’t resist:

On May 2, the day after the Time issue appeared, Nanfang Daily not only ran the story, but put Wen Jiabao in the headline and the lede. The headline was: “Wen Jiabao selected among top 100 influential persons”. The subhead: “Film director Ang Lee and Gome Electronics [founder] Huang Guangyu also selected”.

Here is the story’s lede: “Yesterday’s Time magazine published a list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Premier Wen Jiabao was selected in the ‘leaders and revolutionaries’ category, while Taiwan director Ang Lee was selected for the ‘artists and entertainers’ category.”

A paragraph explaining the categories of the Time 100 followed, and then the zinger (our emphasis):

In the “leaders and revolutionaries” section, Wen Jiabao was mainland China’s only political figure. The magazine said Wen Jiabao had supported China in pressing ahead with economic reforms, and pointed out that Wen had paid increasingly more attention to those in society who have been overlooked, wanting to raise social equality, and he had paid particular attention to problems facing peasants and workers.

The actual text, as available on Time’s website raised the issue of “social unrest” too, which naturally didn’t make it into the Nanfang Daily version:

As Premier, Wen has guided China’s tectonic economy, supporting continued economic reform and growth but also pointedly calling for greater emphasis on social equality for those who have been left out of the country’s “economic miracle.” Indeed, his expressions of concern for the plight of ordinary peasants and laborers, whose disaffection has manifested itself in an alarming increase in social unrest, have given him the image of being something of a populist. He has faced other political challenges: the AIDS crisis, SARS, China’s worsening environmental problems.

Guangzhou’s New Express (a commercial spin-off of Yangcheng Evening News), Southern Metropolis Daily (Guangzhou), Yangtse Evening News (Nanjing, Jiangsu) and Chun Cheng Evening News (Kunming) ran the story too, but softened the blow with more emphasis on foreign politicians.

Here is the New Express lede of May 2: “The May 1 issue of Time magazine announced its list of the top 100 influential world figures, among them State Council Premier Wen Jiabao”.

And in a second article in the same issue: “State Council Premier Wen Jiabao has been selected for a list of the world’s 21 most influential leaders. Time described Wen as a modest and even-tempered leader who has used a practical style and excellent political measures to further China’s rapid economic development”.

A headline in the “International affairs” page of Yangtse Evening News, one of China’s largest papers by circulation, read: “Time selects Wen Jiabao in list of most influential leaders”.

In China’s political climate, news of Wen Jiabao’s inclusion in the Time list puts Hu Jintao in an awkward position, and mentioning Wen’s inclusion is a risky move for domestic media. It is not surprisingly to find that four of the five papers daring to include the news are from China’s south (three from Guangdong Province and one from Yunnan Province), whose press has a reputation for pushing the envelope. Their choices underscore the complicated nature of China’s media environment, where officials in charge of newspapers or other media find ways of wriggling through sensitive topics and around government orders. Hu Jintao, of course, is hardly in a position to respond to the coverage without further embarrassment — and the newspapers presumably realize this.

As to why Time made the choice of Wen Jiabao, Hong Kong Economic Daily said it showed America’s ambivalence over China’s economic growth — its position as an economic partner and its potential threat to U.S. dominance. While Wen Jiabao has become emblematic of economic growth and partnership, the paper said, Hu embodied the West’s reservations about China. “US President George W. Bush has already described US-China relations in a very complicated manner, seeing China as both a competitor and a partner. Again, we have this classic pattern of love and hate … Of course, the West must confess the achievements of China’s economy. After all is said and done, after many years of economic globalization, China’s economy is already inextricably linked with those of the United States and Europe. As the principle in charge of economic work, Wen Jiabao can of course enjoy the glory of China’s economic achievements to its fullest. As the master of overall work, Hu Jintao must bear the full burden of the West’s value judgments and prejudices about China!”

[Posted by David Bandurski and Brian Chan, May 18, 2006, 5:35pm]

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