Chinas leaders reach out to people, but under guard

Heze, China, Feb 1 | Updated: Feb 2 2006, 05:51am hrs
First came thousands of police and troops to guard the roads, then hundreds of officials to monitor residents, and finally the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to share Lunar New Year celebrations with ordinary citizens.

At a time when the Chinese government is worried by rising social unrest, Wen and other national leaders this week embarked on annual pilgrimages to workers and farmers in poorer regions. Wen toured rural Heze and neighboring Jining in Shandong province in coastal northern China, highlighting his promise to improve farmers healthcare, schools and incomes in the countrys next five-year development plan. When the village prospers, rural life improves. When people prosper, they become more unified thats how a society becomes harmonious, he told residents of Guozhuang Village near Heze, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

But even as Wen promoted his commitment to improve the lives of rural residents, the massive security and controlled encounters with locals during his tour were a reminder of the divide many Chinese say separates them from their rulers.

Because society is so unequal these days, it cant be really stable. Its good for leaders to visit ordinary people, but they also need to act on their words otherwise, protests and petitions will keep growing, said Zhou Mengxin, a long-time protester in Heze who is familiar with many local grievances. While Wen met farmers and oil well workers in Shandong from January 27 to 29, Chinas President Hu Jintao traveled to Yanan in western Chinas Shannxi province, the mountainous retreat that Mao Zedong used as a base for spreading revolution across China in the 1940s. POPULIST IMAGE

Since 2003, Hu and Wen, keen to burnish their populist images, have spent the traditional Lunar New Year holiday with coal miners, rural children orphaned by AIDS, and farmers in poor regions. Xinhua commentary on Tuesday said their latest visits were setting an example for leading officials at all levels of linking hearts with the people. But Shandong residents said Wens attempts to reach out to ordinary people were often in controlled, even contrived encounters.

Sales assistant at the Luneng Supermarket in Heze said ordinary shoppers were ushered out before Wen arrived there and the store was filled with plain clothes police and officials. She and other Heze residents said traffic was kept off the streets in whole quarters of the city of 280,000 while Wen passed through. We spent two days cleaning the streets and preparing, and then when Premier Wen came through we kept away, said Wang Gong, a mechanic.