Aggressive Chinese economic reformer may one day hold reins of power Chief vice premier's power, profile rising rapidly among Beijing leaders

July 31, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- A year and a half ago, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping toured southern China to launch his largely successful political drive to accelerate the country's shift to a market economy.

Last week, Zhu Rongji, China's chief vice premier, embarked on his own tour of southern China -- a trip aimed at trying to rein in the financial excess, inflation and speculation that have risen along with the economic boom set loose by Mr. Deng.

The one-two punch could broadly foreshadow the long-term course of Chinese politics.

That is, if Mr. Zhu manages to survive having been thrust suddenly into the hot seat of Chinese politics.

The 64-year-old former Shanghai mayor's meteoric rise within China's top leadership over the last few years has been capped this year by a remarkable expansion in his power and profile. He now handles everything from China's central bank to salvaging its debt-ridden state enterprises to agricultural policies.

Mr. Zhu -- an aggressive economic reformer who has had to endure being labeled "China's Gorbachev" -- is widely perceived as one of the few top Chinese leaders who actually may understand the ins and outs of market economics.

Some Chinese and foreign analysts believe he is Mr. Deng's private choice as China's next top leader.

Such political speculation takes on particular urgency here these days with the 88-year-old Mr. Deng again rumored to be at death's door, after perhaps undergoing surgery this summer for cancer.

Moreover, Premier Li Peng -- Mr. Zhu's superior and rival for power -- has been largely sidelined since April with a heart ailment, a prolonged absence that may have some political overtones.

So as China's hot economy has shown increasing signs of dangerously overheating this year, Mr. Zhu has had to take over the day-to-day operation of the central government.

And it now falls on him to try to pull off the delicate trick of reasserting Beijing's control over the latest Chinese economic boom without squashing it, a trick that Beijing repeatedly failed to accomplish in the 1980s.

For Mr. Zhu then, these must be the best of times and the worst of times.

"It's all happening a little too early for him," says a European diplomat. "Now he has the chance to prove himself. But he is not yet entirely accepted as a government leader. And he certainly must have more on his hands than he ever bargained for at this stage.

"If things go really wrong with the economy, he could end up getting blamed for it and being ruined."

But Mr. Zhu has not retreated from the challenge. This summer, he personally took over China's central bank, laid out a 16-point attack on economic disorder and dispatched inspection teams from Beijing to ensure that his plans are followed by provincial leaders.

In the long term, many observers doubt these measures will be sufficient to sidestep a potentially volatile downturn. "Inevitably, the slowdown will not be painless," predicted a report last week by a major Hong Kong bank.

But in the short term, there are signs his moves have instilled some renewed confidence here. A downward skid in the value of the Chinese currency has been halted at least for now, and there have been reports of more deposits flowing into the cash-short banking system.

Mr. Zhu has a salesman's knack for inspiring confidence, particularly among foreigners. An engineer and fluent English speaker, he first gained notice for his efforts to revitalize Shanghai as its mayor and Communist Party chief in the late 1980s.

Attempts to cut through the city's legendary red tape earned him the nickname of "one-chop" Zhu. His apparent ease with Westerners and unusually straightforward style led others to label him China's first "export-quality" politician.

He is said to wisely loathe the Gorbachev epithet, a damning title within the Chinese Communist Party.

It is an inaccurate title, for there is no sign Mr. Zhu is interested in pushing political reforms in China. And it also is likely a sensitive point because, like many others, he suffered politically for years under the charge of being a "rightist" -- after responding to Mao Tse-tung's 1956 call to constructively criticize the party.

Mr. Zhu was brought to Beijing as a vice premier in April 1991, a time when Mr. Deng already had publicly anointed Jiang Zemin, the current party chief and another former Shanghai mayor, as "the core" of China's next generation of leaders.

Just two years later, given Mr. Li's illness and renewed rumors that Mr. Deng is about to die, there is increasing talk that the highest powers in China soon could be in the hands of not just Mr. Jiang, but of a "Shanghai clique" -- centered on both Mr. Jiang and the rapidly rising Mr. Zhu.

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