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wen jiabao

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, left, chats with his successor, Li Keqiang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, during the opening session of the National People's Congress at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, March 5, 2013.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

For much of Wen Jiabao's decade as China's Premier, questions swirled about his loveable, friend-of-the-people persona and the role he played in the Communist Party government.

Was he genuinely the populist "Grandpa Wen" who cried at disaster scenes and occasionally advocated for greater democracy and freedoms? Or was he "China's best actor," as one prominent political dissident labelled him, a cynical politician who paid lip service to democracy while his family allegedly made an astonishing fortune during his time in power?

The questions hung in the air Tuesday as Mr. Wen prepared to give his final major speech at the opening of China's once-a-year parliament, the National People's Congress.

Before he spoke, there was whispered speculation in the ornate lobby of the Great Hall of the People that Mr. Wen might use the podium to make a last-ditch argument for political reforms. Others joked darkly that the outgoing Premier might instead make an emotional farewell in case the corruption allegations meant he was never to be seen again. There were even rumours Mr. Wen wouldn't give Tuesday's speech unless he was first declared vindicated of all suspicion.

This is a time of political transition in China, a rare moment when no one knows precisely how events will play out, particularly with the shape of the next government not yet clear and incoming president Xi Jinping spearheading an anti-corruption drive.

But Mr. Wen stuck to his 29-page script in addressing the rubber-stamp legislative body. Speaking under a giant red star, Mr. Wen said that China needed to maintain its focus on economic development, declaring a growth target of 7.5 per cent for 2013, while upholding "the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics."

He got applause when he called for greater environmental protections – a top-of-mind topic in smog-blanketed Beijing – and when he said the government must "safeguard China's maritime rights and interests," a reference to a highly charged boundary dispute with neighbouring Japan.

However, his call to "ensure that officials are honest, government is clean and political affairs are handled with integrity" was weakened by the scandal surrounding his family's own finances and a separate media report last year on Mr. Xi's family fortune. Neither man is known to be facing any kind of investigation.

As Mr. Wen spoke, the 2,965 delegates watched a big-screen television alternate between close-ups of the retiring leadership – President Hu Jintao, Mr. Wen and their Politburo – and the new one headed by Mr. Xi and Li Keqiang, who will succeed Mr. Wen as Premier this month. All stared unsmilingly into the camera when their turns came.

The message was clear: There will be stability, even amid change, and continuity at the top. And Mr. Wen, one of the most popular politicians the Communist Party has produced, was the one delivering it.

Though he had declared freedom and democracy "irresistible" in a 2010 interview on CNN that was censored in China, Mr. Wen uttered neither word in his last address as Premier.

Instead, the 70-year-old proudly listed the many achievements over the decade that he and Mr. Hu headed this authoritarian, one-party state: China's inaugural manned space flight, its first aircraft carrier, the country's expanding high-speed rail network and Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics. He also highlighted the growing challenges the new leadership will face: runaway corruption, an expanding wealth gap and accelerating environmental deterioration.

Mr. Wen did tell delegates that "China has entered a crucial stage of reform, and we must further emancipate our minds," but it was only one line in a speech that lasted 100 minutes. He offered no specific prescription, either, only a broad admonition to "carry out all-around economic, political, cultural and social reforms."

What those reforms would be was left to the next generation of leaders, led by Mr. Xi and Mr. Li.

Mr. Xi, who is already head of the Communist Party and the military, will formally become president at the end of the National People's Congress, which is expected to last 10 to 12 days. A new cabinet, headed by Mr. Li as premier, will also be announced in the next two weeks.

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