"So far we cannot identify whether Wen Jiabao is representing himself or representing a group," says a recently retired minister-level official, who had confidently predicted Bo's sacking to me 10 days before it happened. "Maybe it's 80 percent himself and 20 percent the group. We still have to watch."
It remains far from clear whether the Communist Party's webs of patronage and knots of financial and bureaucratic interests can be reformed. But with China's leftist movement decapitated by the purge of Bo Xilai, and Bo's critics now talking about his reign of "red terror" after daily revelations of political and physical brutality under his command, Wen has begun to win over some of his many detractors.
"In the past I did not have a fully positive view of Wen Jiabao, because he said a lot of things but didn't deliver," says a leading media figure with lifelong connections to China's leadership circle. "Now I realize just to be able to say it, that's important. To speak up, let the whole world know that he could not achieve anything because he was strangled by the system."
Hu Yaobang's most faithful protégé, who carried his funeral casket to its final resting place, is building on the groundwork laid by Hu and his children ostensibly to prevent a return of the Cultural Revolution. Wen Jiabao is defending the party line set by Deng Xiaoping's 1981 historical resolution against attack from the left. Between the lines, however, he is challenging the Communist Party's 30-year consensus from the liberal right.
Hu Dehua, the youngest son, spelled out the gulf between these positions in a rare Chinese media interview one month ago: "The difference between my father and Deng is this: Deng wanted to save the party; my father wanted to save the people, the ordinary people."
Wen Jiabao sees Bo's downfall as a pivotal opportunity to pin his reformist colors high while the Communist Party is too divided to rein him in. He is reaching out to the Chinese public because the party is losing its monopoly on truth and internal roads to reform have long been blocked. Ironically, he is doing so by leading the public purging of a victim who has no hope of transparent justice, because the party to which he has devoted his life has never known any other way.