Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 20

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Zhu Rongji has a habit of saying intriguing things when he is abroad. And when cadres who do not see eye to eye with him, including President Jiang Zemin, are not around. While visiting Paris late last month, the veteran premier began his press conference by quoting this famous dictum from Confucius: “At 70, you can do and say whatever you like–and not overstep the boundaries.” “This means that whatever I say will not run against the Chinese people’s principles,” said Zhu, who turns 74 in October.

Zhu’s expression of a desire to be free from all constraints was confirmation of his impending retirement, which will take effect at the first session of the 10th National People’s Congress (NPC) in March. One of Zhu’s last tasks is to make sure that two other septuagenarian Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members–Jiang, who turned 76 last August, and National People’s Congress Chairman Li Peng, 74–would also be giving up all their positions at the upcoming 16th CCP Congress.

In fact, Zhu had sounded the same message a year ago. Also in Europe in the summer of 2001, the premier was asked by reporters whether he would be retiring. He responded in the positive, adding: “People of my age should call it a day to make way for younger cadres.”

Chinese sources in Beijing said that, at the time, Jiang was very angry with Zhu for having insisted on the standard of rejuvenation. But, apart from ordering the media to play down news of Zhu’s trip, there was not much he could do. And beginning this past spring, Zhu–together with such other PSC stalwarts as Li Ruihuan and Wei Jianxing–has been at the forefront of the campaign to ensure that Jiang cannot stay for another term as party chief. And while Zhu would occasionally humor Jiang by singing praises of his “Theory of the Three Represents” (that the party must represent the foremost productivity, the most advanced culture and the masses’ interests), he has made clear his aversion to Mao-style personality cults.

Equally important for Zhu in his last months as head of government is to safeguard his legacy–and to ensure that enough of his proteges will be promoted at the 16th Congress and the 10th NPC. While Zhu remains intensely popular overseas, the prestige of the Hunan native has fallen markedly the past year within China.

The economic czar has been faulted for sustaining a 7-percent growth rate by incurring record-high budget deficits–and kick-starting infrastructure projects and other job-creation programs that have dubious long-term viability. He has also been criticized for doing too much for Chinese–and foreign–businessmen along the rich coast, while neglecting the welfare of jobless workers and destitute farmers, especially those in the heartland. There is even innuendo that the legendary “Mr. Clean” has allegedly allowed his son and daughter, both successful financiers, to use their father’s name to nail big contracts.


To counteract the adverse publicity, Zhu has gone to extraordinary lengths to embellish his reputation as a “people’s prime minister.” In early summer, the premier complained that while poor civil servants like himself–who makes a mere US$100 a month–had to pay taxes, dakuan (“nouveau riche big-spenders”) were getting away with pocketing every cent of their millions.

Revenue collectors in the big cities soon announced that they had put certain categories of people prone to evading taxes–including private businessmen and professionals deemed to be “representatives of the foremost productivity and the most advanced culture”–on special watch lists. And Zhu reportedly authorized the jailing of several big name personalities for tax evasion. They have included popular former movie queen Liu Xiaoqing as well as agri-business tycoon Yang Bin, who made global headlines last month by being appointed the chief executive of a “special administrative zone” in North Korea.

Analysts say the premier’s war on super-rich tax dodgers has enabled him to kill two birds with one stone. Given that it is near-impossible to raise corporate taxes, improving the efficiency of tax collection among the affluent will go some way toward boosting national coffers and narrowing the budget deficits. Moreover, penalizing the filthy rich could at least give the impression that the government is serious about narrowing the yawning gap between the haves and haves-not.

Recently, the premier raised eyebrows by warning rapacious real-estate developers to stay away from the Fragrant Hills in the northwest of the capital. He hinted that the lovely hills and parks should be preserved for the enjoyment of the masses. Zhu has also reiterated his determination to use “1,000 ways and means” to help the disadvantaged sectors of society. At a national summit on job creation in late summer, the outgoing premier held provincial, municipal and county officials personally responsible for solving the unemployment problem within their jurisdictions.

As for personnel issues, Zhu’s focus is to ensure that his right-hand man, Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, would succeed himself. And with his boss’s backing, Wen, 60, is trying to stake out a reputation as a talk-less, do-more super-bureaucrat in the mold of the revered late premier, Zhou Enlai.

Unlike Zhu, Wen is a taciturn administrator who is confident that his record in taming floods and upholding rural stability can propel him to the top–and he is not about to jeopardize his chances by speaking his mind publicly. Wen’s political fortune is rising because it is quite unlikely that the two other candidates for the job of State Council chief–Vice Premiers Wu Banguo and Li Lanqing–would make it.

A number of Zhu proteges in the vast financial and banking establishment–which has been Zhu’s power base since the early 1990s–are tipped for promotion. Foremost among them are State Councilor Wu Yi (who may become Politburo member and vice premier) and the Governor of the People’s Bank of China Dai Xianglong (who may become Politburo member and State Councilor). Political pundits say Wu, China’s highest-ranked woman, who is a veteran trade negotiator, could even succeed Vice Premier Qian Qichen as Politburo member in charge of foreign policy.

As political intrigue thickens in the run-up to the 16th Congress slated to open on November 8, innuendo about the not-so-subtle infighting between the Jiang and Zhu camps has increased. The president has reportedly tried to embarrass Zhu by exposing the alleged economic crimes of such of the premier’s protégés as former financier and businessman Zhu Xiaohua.

And the Zhu camp is said to have put the spotlight on the business activities of Jiang’s son, Vice President of the Academy of Sciences Jiang Mianheng. Earlier this year, the younger Jiang, who is often dubbed “the IT king of Shanghai,” failed to become a delegate to the 16th Congress, meaning his chances of making it to the ruling Central Committee have been jeopardized.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

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