- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China’s premier defended his government’s policies in Tibet and its handling of the economic crisis Friday, promising more stimulus measures if needed to boost growth and maintain public confidence.

In his only scheduled news conference of the year, Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that a half-trillion-dollar stimulus program would revive the buoyant growth dragged down by the global downturn and create jobs and provide social welfare to cope with worsening unemployment. He pointedly called on Washington to protect the value of Chinese holdings of U.S. Treasuries and other debt, estimated to be worth about U$1 trillion.

More than painstakingly explaining policies, the precise, scholarly Wen tried to convey the message that Beijing was confident it could withstand the turmoil. He used the word confidence five times in as many minutes at the start of the nationally televised news conference.

“Confidence is more important than gold and money,” Wen told reporters in the Great Hall of the People. “First and foremost, we have to have very strong confidence. Only when we have strong confidence can we have more courage and strength and only when we have courage and strength can we overcome the difficulties.”

Wen is the most popular figure in the usually remote communist leadership. Sometimes referred to as “grandpa Wen,” he is frequently shown on state television touring the country, talking with farmers in the countryside. As such, his popularity is a boon for an authoritarian government that in part relies on its popularity to impress sometimes recalcitrant local officials to carry out Beijing’s policies.

Though largely focused on the domestic economy, Wen also twice defended its record in Tibet, including ramped-up security intended to prevent a repeat of the massive anti-government uprising that swept Tibetan communities in western China a year ago.

“Tibet’s peace and stability and Tibet’s continuous progress have proven the policies we have adopted are right,” said Wen. He said Beijing has hugely increased subsidies to Tibet in recent years to spur growth and raise incomes in a chronically poor region.

Wen said China was willing to hold future talks with envoys from the Dalai Lama, provided Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader gives up his “separatist stance.” Last year, representatives for both sides held three different rounds of talks but little progress was made.

“For such contacts and consultations to make progress, what’s important is for the Dalai Lama to have sincerity. Otherwise, no substantive results can be made,” he said.

The news conference, an annual fixture, was the first for Wen since he began confronting the collective leadership’s first economic crisis. Since coming to power six years ago, Wen, President Hu Jintao and other leaders have mostly faced the opposite situation, trying to slow breakneck economic growth.

The turnaround for the economy has been swift. Growth has halved in a year. Exports have cratered. Jobs are disappearing by the tens of millions, raising the prospects of heightened unrest in a society that has gotten used to steadily rising standards of living.

The centerpiece of the government’s effort is the 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus plan to be spent on infrastructure projects and social programs. Before Wen’s news conference, deputies to the Communist Party-dominated national legislature overwhelmingly approved the stimulus and the rest of a budget that will increase spending nearly 25 percent from last year’s level to cope with the downturn.

Wen said the government stood ready to unveil additional stimulus measures should the current ones prove insufficient to raising growth to about 8 percent.

“We already have our plans ready to tackle even more difficult times, and to do that we have reserved adequate ammunition,” he said. “At any time we can introduce new stimulus policies.”

Unlike previous years, Wen struck a businesslike tone and shied away from revealing personal details or quoting poetry _ displays that have made him popular but are unusual for Chinese leaders. One exception: He voiced his desire to visit Taiwan, Beijing’s long-standing rival in a half-century civil war but with whom ties are warming.

“Taiwan is China’s treasured island,” Wen said. If allowed, he would visit the popular scenic spots of Mount Ali and Sun Moon Lake. “Although I am 67 years old, if there’s a chance for me to go to Taiwan, even if I can no longer walk, I will crawl to the island.”

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