BEIJING, Sep 26 (Reuters) Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao fought off purges and toiled for years in the backwoods before rising to the helm of government, tackling problems with quiet consensus-building rather than strong-armed decisiveness.
Now approaching the mid-point in his tenure, and with a key Communist Party Congress due in mid-October, Wen faces the task of seeing through his agenda of diverting the torrent of urban economic growth to the countryside and narrowing the chasm between China's nouveau riche and impoverished farmers.
Since becoming premier in 2003, Wen has eaten dumplings with coal miners, gone to an AIDS-stricken village, helped labourers get back unpaid wages and curbed factory pollution, endearing himself to China's masses, who see him as sympathetic to their plight.
''He is just like my next-door neighbour: a good friend, a frugal neighbour,'' gushed one Web site posting in a flood of responses to a photograph of the premier wearing a winter coat he was said to have owned for more than a decade.
While many see Wen as persistent and effective, some question whether he has the strength to push through his agenda of balanced, sustainable growth in the face of rival officials and economic interests wary of his populist leanings.
''Some people think he's too soft and not as resolute as Zhu was,'' said Victor Shih, a Chinese politics expert at Northwestern University, referring to Wen's fiery predecessor, Zhu Rongji.
''But some of the officials like that. They see Wen as someone who is sincere about the things he wants to do,'' Shih added.
Responding to a question at the World Economic Forum in Dalian in early September, Wen himself defined the qualities of leadership not in terms of toughness but perseverance and vision.
A leader must be far-sighted, possess the ''spirit of reform'', be ''adept at seizing opportunities'', and ''be steadfast and persevering when facing difficulties and frustrations'', he said.
POLITICAL SURVIVOR Given that he survived the purges that characterise the cut-throat world of Chinese politics, the diminutive premier must possess both political savvy and a certain strength of character.
The defining icon of Wen's past is a black and white photograph taken two weeks before the bloody military crackdown on June 4, 1989 that ended the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
The picture shows a poker-faced Wen standing next to then Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was making an emotional appeal to protesting students to leave. Zhao was ousted days later and lived out the rest of his life under house arrest.
Wen, then Zhao's chief of staff, not only survived, but rose.
A geologist by training, Wen spent 14 years in the poor, far western province of Gansu, where his memory for detail earned him the nickname ''living map''.
Named vice premier in 1998, he took charge of financial and agricultural reforms, development of the lagging western hinterland and environmental protection.
Now Wen, 65 this month, faces the challenge of cementing his ''man of the people'' reputation by seeing through huge healthcare and education reforms and trying to cool the booming economy without sending the country into recession.
While some appreciate his more consensual style, he has been seen in some quarters as plodding and inefficient.
''Policymaking under the Wen Jiabao State Council has tended to emphasise bureaucratic consensus-building rather than prompt decisiveness, and so policymaking has often been slow and incremental,'' China scholar Barry Naughton wrote in an essay published in the China Leadership Monitor.
Others say Wen's hands are tied by the system in which he must operate.
''They have crude information and they have crude tools,'' said Stephen Green, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai.
Wen must steer a country that is more than ever tied up with the global economy, navigating between ministries competing over how to define both China's problems and their solutions, he said.
''It's hard for him,'' said Green. ''And it wouldn't necessarily be easier for Zhu Rongji.'' REUTERS SG RK1013