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UPDATED: March 2, 2009
Chinese Premier Goes Online, Facing Barrage of Tough Questions With Honest Heart
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao jumped in his first ever online chat, facing questions from nearly 300,000 netizens and mobile phone users

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao jumped in his first ever online chat on Saturday afternoon, facing questions from nearly 300,000 netizens and mobile phone users ranging from unemployment, wealth gap, social justice to democracy.

"I don't expect myself to answer every question well, but I am here with a sincere heart and speak honestly," Wen said during the two-hour-long chat jointly run by the central government web site www.gov.cn and the Xinhua News Agency web site www.xinhuanet.com .

The chat, second of its kind for a high-ranking Chinese official, came several days before the Premier is to deliver his annual work report at a meeting of the national legislature on March 5.

President Hu Jintao had a brief Q&A with netizens at the web site of People's Daily last June.

It seems Wen, who surfs the Internet almost every day and sometimes spends as long as one hour on the Internet, is aware of the toughness of the chat. He started the chat speaking of the approximately half million questions directed to him on local Internet forums, lately opened for the public to utter their advice ahead of the legislature meeting.

"I am deeply aware of the raft of issues that need to be addressed in a country as vast as China and I am deeply aware of the difficulty and heavy responsibility a Chinese Premier has to face," he said.


The first heavy barrage came from the concern over lingering economic slowdown which has already caused more than 20 million rural migrant workers jobless and terminated the superiority complex previously prevalent among the country's millions of college graduates on the job market.

In an obvious effort to elevate public confidence without giving false hope, Premier Wen used careful wording to evaluate the effect of the four-trillion-yuan stimulus package he endorsed last November.

"Signs in certain areas and fields pointed to a turnaround. Some key indicators showed the economic situation has somewhat turned better. But those were just temporary indices and couldn't be fully compared with the past figures," he said.

"We must fully realize we are facing a long-term and arduous task and strengthen confidence in the face of the crisis and be ready to take firmer and stronger actions when necessary."

Wen gave his personal appreciation to the "brothers" of rural migrant workers for their contribution to China's prosperity and their understanding in times of difficulty.

"You have born the first brunt of the financial crisis, but you didn't hold much grudge against the government but instead showed your understanding, with some going back home silently for farming and others dashing around for jobs," Wen said. "I thank you!"

The government would offer vocational training and tax privileges for rural migrant workers to start their own business, he said.

Wen didn't use the occasion for a national consumption pitch, although many economists agreed that raising consumption would be the only way to rebalance and sustain the economy.

"Of course we wish the wealthy could spend money boldly, but what we think essential is to increase the income of people from all walks of life. In that case, consumption would have a much more solid founding," he said.

Hand-picking a complaint over financing difficulty from netizen Shen Yuefang who ran a small-scale business in Zhejiang, Wen harshly blamed commercial banks, urging them to step up the implementation of state policies and lend more to small and medium-sized companies, especially private ones.

"I always said that economists, entrepreneurs and bankers must have moral blood. That is to say whenever the country is in trouble, we should help smaller companies and optimize the system. This is real action to share in the woes of the nation. Every banker should do this," he said.


Affectionately named "Baobao" (the Chinese for baby) by his fans, the 67-year-old has become one of the nation's most popular figures after making swift appearance at disaster sites when a devastating earthquake shocked the country last May.

During his visit to Tianjin on Feb. 16 this year, Wen came cross weeping mother Wang Zhihua who couldn't afford the treatment for his seriously ill son. Wen personally donated 10,000 yuan and arranged for the two-year-old suffering leukaemia from the rural area in Zhangjiakou of Hebei Province to get hospitalized in the Beijing Children's Hospital.

This philanthropic act however triggered public sighs over the country's inadequate medical system.

"I noticed the harsh criticism which says good system matters more than good Premier," Wen said, responding to a question on the treatment of seriously ill children.

"Being the Premier, I need to think about how to optimize our medical system and have seriously ill children treated....We have already started to work in this direction. But our efforts is far from enough."

China currently has more than four million leukemic children. Treatment for each would cost more than 100,000 yuan. But no medical insurance in China would allow reimbursement for such large medical bills, Wen acknowledged.

He mentioned five steps the government will take, including expanding the coverage of insurance and establishing a basic medicine system with price ceilings.

The State Council, or the Cabinet, has lately passed a medical reform plan involving a government input of 850 billion yuan (123 billion U.S. dollars) by 2011 to provide universal medical service to the country's 1.3 billion population.

"Health care reform is not easy. Our determination to push forward the reform shows that the government cares about the health of the public," Wen said.

"Let me assure you that a good Premier would push forward the establishment of a good system," he said.


Bombarded by questions over the widening income gap and government corruption, Wen said that in a society where fairness and justice prevail, the public should be able to share the fruits of reform.

Citing the Theory of Moral Sentiments by philosopher Adam Smith, Wen said that society would be unstable if the wealth was long concentrated in the hands of a small number of people while the majority was stuck in poverty.

"However, the needy would have no way to shake off poverty when the society was static. So only through development and progress can we tackle such difficulty from the root," he said.

"To uphold democracy and have the people truly in charge, we must rely on no individuals but a sound system to secure top-to-bottom communications for the government to listen to the voices of the masses," he said.

Asked why he didn't dodge when German student Martin Jahnke blew a whistle and hurled a sports shoe at him at the concert hall of Cambridge University on Feb. 2 during his speech, Wen admitted his eyes had been blinded by the spotlight.

"I didn't know indeed what has come to me. But I have a conviction even it was a dangerous article, I wouldn't move a bit because the first thing that came cross my mind was to safeguard the national dignity," he said.

Wen asked the moderator to prolong the chat more than once and addressed 29 more questions.

(Xinhua News Agency March 1, 2009)

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