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China's New Prime Minister to Focus on Problems of 'Ordinary People'

The man expected to guide China's economy as prime minister, Wen Jiabao, takes office Sunday. Political experts say Mr. Wen will be less abrasive than his predecessor and more concerned about the problems of ordinary people left behind by China's rapid, but uneven economic growth.

Vice Prime Minister Wen Jiabao spent part of the Chinese New Year holiday deep underground in a coal mine, sharing a meal with miners. Coal miners are near the bottom of China's economic and political pecking order, and thousands of them die each year in the country's recklessly run mines.

Political scientist David Zweig of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says the holiday visit gives a good sense of Mr. Wen's personality and priorities. "So here he goes into a mine, saying to the workers, I share your problems, I understand your problems, I am going to do the best I can for you," he explained.

Mr. Wen's apparent concern for the millions of Chinese still mired in poverty comes from his 10 years of service in remote, rural, poor Gansu Province. His academic training is in geology and he served in the geological office of the northwestern province before moving up to political jobs.

By contrast, the generation of Chinese leaders now passing from the scene, spent most of their professional lives in the relatively rich coastal cities. President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, are good examples, as both are former mayors of Shanghai, China's richest city.

This generational transition, including the one from Zhu Rongji to Wen Jiabao, is the most important task of the current legislative meeting of China's mostly ceremonial National People's Congress. The NPC endorses policies and leaders already chosen and approved by China's ruling Communist Party elders.

The outgoing prime minister, Zhu Rongji, is well known for his aggressive, abrasive, relentless push for reforms, which have spurred economic growth.

Experts in Chinese politics, including Harvard's Anthony Saich, say Mr. Wen will bring a less confrontational and perhaps more effective style to the job. "He is quiet, but he builds consensus," he said. "And in some ways he might be able to work better with the bureaucracy rather than trying to shake up the bureaucracy as Premier Zhu has during his 10 years as premier."

Mr. Wen has been Mr. Zhu's deputy and close political ally. Scholars assume Mr. Wen will continue Mr. Zhu's campaign to move China from a planned communist economy to a more market-oriented system.

That effort has brought stunning economic growth to China, but at the cost of closing many state-owned companies and throwing tens of millions of people out of jobs they had expected to keep for life. Mr. Zhu's economic reforms have also failed to ease the plight of China's farmers, who are leaving the land by the millions seeking work in the cities.

Scholars speculate that Mr. Wen will continue to press for economic reforms, while stepping up efforts to ease the impact on unemployed workers.

It will be a difficult task, but an expert in Chinese politics, Cheng Li of Hamilton College in the United States, says Mr. Wen is likely to succeed because he will be able to form a coalition with the new president, Hu Jintao. "Both of them spent a lot of time in China's inland region and both of them have kind of a human touch, and are very much concerned about the social safety net," said Mr. Li.

Mr. Wen is also a remarkable political survivor. He was a top aid to Communist Party General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. Mr. Wen accompanied Mr. Zhao on a highly publicized trip to talk to protesters in the square, and a picture of the meeting appeared in newspapers.

Mr. Zhao, a liberal reformer, enraged Communist Party elders by appearing soft and failing to end the demonstration. They fired him and put him under house arrest. But Mr. Wen's career recovered and he is headed to the top echelon of Chinese politics.