BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Friday showed the soft-edged populism that has drawn both public devotees and political naysayers as he seeks to tame the nation's wild ride of industrial expansion.
The 67-year-old premier is entering his final years in charge of the world's third-biggest economy, and in his annual report to the Communist-run parliament, Wen said he would focus on narrowing social divisions and spreading wealth.
"We will not only make 'the pie' of social wealth bigger by developing the economy, but also distribute it well on the basis of a rational income distribution system," Wen said.
When Wen bows out in early 2013, he will have spent a decade at the pinnacle of the one-Party government.
Analysts said he had left a marked but mixed imprint on policy, showing how stubbornly the ship of Chinese politics resists big turns, even if the captain shouts orders.
Wen's predecessor as premier, Zhu Rongji, seemed to relish lambasting officials, baiting reporters and making bold policy gambles, sometimes successful, sometimes a mess.
Wen has cast himself as a humble servant of the people, conciliatory, tearful in the face of their suffering and with a relentless capacity for new tasks -- perhaps too many.
"Zhu Rongji had his iron fist and Wen Jiabao has had his tears, but in the end both men have found neither way works magic," said Zheng Yongnian, director of the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute, which focuses on China.
Wen's achievements can be measured in the abolition of hated taxes on poor farmers, rising rural incomes and the makings of a broad social welfare net, Zheng said.
Under Wen's watch, narrowing the urban-rural income gap has been a key objective. However, studies of wealth distribution indicate that inequalities have budged little, or even worsened.
Wen has also faced frustrations with his hopes for coaxing growth away from cheap exports, big state projects and polluting factories.
"You can be popular by being soft. But eventually all policies have to be enforced by bureaucrats and special interests, and then crying doesn't work," said Zheng.
As time runs out for Wen to build his legacy, his impatience for change may show more sharply, before he makes way for his likely successor, Li Keqiang, now one of four vice-premiers.
Wen's administration may have missed a golden opportunity to push through contentious changes, said Tom Orlik, an economist with research firm Stone & McCarthy in Beijing.
"I think the government is going to regret its lack of ambition in pushing forward reforms in the good times," he said. "They had several years of very rapid growth supported by extremely strong foreign demand in the run-up to the crisis, and in retrospect that was an opportunity to push through difficult domestic reforms."
TEARS, POETRY AND THE INTERNET
Wen is certainly popular among ordinary people.
His displays of sympathy for their woes stand against the Communist Party's ranks of mostly wooden leaders, often shown on television giving slogan-loaded speeches.
A geologist by training, Wen spent 14 years in poor, far northwest Gansu province, rising through the Party as a loyal and ever-prepared aide to officials.
His reputation for unassuming service helped him survive 1989, when his boss, then Party chief Zhao Ziyang, was purged after the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Since becoming premier in 2003, Wen has spent Lunar New Year holidays down a coal mine and in an AIDS-stricken village, often wearing his trademark frayed blue jacket.
"Grandpa Wen" -- as local media affectionately refer to him -- drew a torrent of admiring support in 2008, when he clambered over buildings shattered by southwest China's devastating earthquake, tearfully comforting weeping children and hollering into a bullhorn to drive on rescuers.
He has also held online question-and-answer sessions with Chinese Internet users, giving them a rare chance for contact -- however controlled -- with their unelected leader.
Wen told the last online session, days before parliament opened its annual full session, that he sympathised with people's worries about income inequality, climbing house prices, graduate unemployment, and residential registration rules that frustrate long-term migration to and between cities.
"I'll spare nothing in exerting myself on my duties until I die," said Wen, a typical flourish from a man who rarely gives a news conference without reciting poetry.
"If China had a real democratic election today, Wen would probably win hands down," said Li Zhiying, a political rights activist in Beijing who focuses on farmers' complaints.
But Wen's public displays also appear to be a mark of the constraint he faces.
Wen's broader goals to cut ministries and wean China's economic growth from feverish industrial expansion have made halting progress, facing bureaucratic resistance and the sheer demands of keeping up job and revenue growth.
In his report to parliament, Wen said he faced a tough time curbing industries with excess capacity.
In private, officials and princelings -- the children of incumbent, retired or late leaders -- sometimes scoff at Wen's shows of sentimentality, seen as unbecoming from a state boss.
"It's because he's constrained in policy, constrained by the needs of the system that he's a part of, that he wants to come out more and speak of his hopes," said Chen Yongmiao, an independent researcher in Beijing, who runs his own institute that studies China's "post-reform" politics.
(Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch; Editing by Ken Wills and Benjamin Kang Lim)
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