New York: Nicknamed "Grandpa Wen", China`s most popular leader Prime Minister Wen Jiabao appears to be struggling to retain his key post and his third rank in the powerful Communist party politburo with hints of "rift" with President Hu Jintao.
"Wen who is entering the twilight of a decade as country`s third ranked leader appears to be struggling to retain his position", New York Times reported from Beijing.
The leading spokesman for what passes for political liberalism in China, Wen is by most accounts ideologically isolated on the Communist Party`s nine-member Politburo standing committee.
"More than once his views have been rebuffed, tacitly or openly in party organs. There are tantalising hints of rifts with his boss, President Hu Jintao", the Times said.
The paper said Communist Party hardliners were internally strengthening their control and Wen`s advocacy of political reform has increasingly sapped his influence.
The latest rebuff to the 69-year-old Premier, Times said, had been handed out when his pledge for "open and transparent" government inquiry into the recent high speed train disaster which claimed 40 lives was quietly buried.
Quoting sources in China, the paper said that just the day after announcing an official inquiry into the incident, censors had moved to silence the news media`s dogged reporting on railway negligence and corruption.
By last week, the government inquiry itself was accused of being rigged, run by a panel that included the Railway Minister`s second-in-command and loyalist experts. Quoting an official news media editor, Times said the Prime Minister had become a high risk figure in the country as a state run radio network had balked at his offer of an exclusive exchange with listeners on the air.
Even Wen`s reformist supporters are getting disillusioned by his failure to gain traction within the leadership.
"When Wen became Prime Minister eight years ago, people had high hopes because his speeches always leave people hopeful", the paper quoted He Weifang, a liberal Beijing scholar as saying.
"But now it has been eight years. His term is coming to an end. It`s doubtful whether he genuinely has the strong will to reform, because it doesn`t seem he has taken enough convincing actions to resist the conservatives".
With retirement in sight, Wen may not care about such slaps on the wrist. But it appears that the hardliners within China have gained an upper hand, the paper said.