Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 2

Premier Zhu Rongji, China’s best-known reformer, is on the defensive in the factional infighting that is tipped to worsen in the run-up to the 16th Communist Party Congress scheduled for late this year. In part because of arguments over the retire-at-70 rule, Zhu’s relationship with President Jiang Zemin and National People’s Congress Chairman Li Peng has been frosty since mid-2001.

Many of Zhu’s supporters were unhappy about the fact that the hard-charging economic czar was kept away from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai last October. Instead, Jiang, who was APEC’s host in Shanghai, brought along his trusted aide Zeng Qinghong, a party functionary with no government portfolios. Zhu, 73, who has reiterated his desire to retire at the end of his five-year term in March 2002, has been focusing much of his energy on pushing his protégés for senior positions at the pivotal party congress. However, latest reports from Beijing say the iron-fisted reformer has been meeting with difficulties.

Take the case of Zhu ally, Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, who is the premier’s favorite to succeed himself. Recently, Li–the only cadre responsible for the June 4, 1989 crackdown who is still in power–has in internal meetings raised doubts about Wen’s “trustworthiness.” The 59-year-old Wen was in 1989 a close aide to former Party Chief Zhao Ziyang, who was disgraced soon after the Tiananmen massacre for “conniving at the spread of bourgeois liberalization.” Moreover, Guangdong party secretary Li Changchun, who is President Jiang’s candidate for premier, has been making disparaging remarks about Wen’s lack of high-level provincial experience.

Zhu also wants a big promotion for State Councillor Wu Yi, the only woman to hold a senior post in the party and government. Hence his recent remarks that there should be more female cadres at the top. Like Zhu, however, Wu has become unpopular with Beijing bureaucrats as well as regional officials for the pivotal role she played in speeding up China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

As of the end of 2001, the Shanghai Faction led by Jiang and Zeng was doing particularly well on the personnel front. Zeng, who is the Head of the party’s Organization Department, has installed a good number of Shanghai Faction affiliates in the course the recent reshuffle of the leaderships of more than twenty provinces and important cities.

According to a Western diplomat, that Zhu is encountering problems in factional slugfests can be seen from the near-desperate strategy he seems to have taken: to dissociate himself from his proteges in the hope that their chances for promotion won’t be affected by being known as members of the Zhu Faction.
“Zhu has tried to distance himself from long-time associates including two rising stars: Vice Minister of Finance Lou Jiwei and Vice Governor of the People’s Bank of China Guo Shuqing,” the diplomat said. In internal meetings, Zhu is understood to have said recently: “I don’t have any faction, nor do I have any personal think tanks.”


Perhaps even more ominous is a spate of anti-Zhu innuendo, which takes the form of assertions about his patronage of or friendship with senior banking and financial officials who had been investigated for alleged irregularities.

The former president of the China Construction Bank, Wang Xuebing, who is under investigation for allegedly giving approval to questionable loans, is said to be a one-time Zhu protégé. Other disgraced cadres considered to have been close to Zhu at one time or another have included the Head of the China Everbright Group, Zhu Xiaohua, and the former director of the State Administration on Foreign Exchange, Li Fuxiang, who apparently committed suicide in 2000. Zhu was frank about the number of his foes both in and out of the bureaucracy. At the Sixth World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention held in Nanjing last September, the premier surprised the audience when he made the off-the-cuff remark that he feared that his enemies would “get me after my retirement.” This invited comparison with his well-known saying of the mid-1990s: “Go and prepare 101 coffins–100 for corrupt officials and one for myself.” However, Zhu has refused to just wallow in gallows humor.

Further, a number of intriguing statements the feisty leader made in internal meetings have shown while he seems to be on the defensive, the premier wants to leave a legacy that is commensurate with his reputation as a master reformer. And it is interesting that the State Council chief has been paying attention to political reform rather than his portfolio of economic liberalization. While talking recently to cadres dealing with personnel issues, Zhu suggested that the retirement age for ministers be lowered from 65 to 60. The premier said that this would enable the Chinese civil service to better dovetail with global norms. “We must speed up the pace of rejuvenation,” he said. “The older generation must make way for the young.”

Even more significant, the premier said while dwelling on officials’ problematic relations with the masses that “cadres must be quick to respond to voices in society.” When his subordinates asked for a clarification of this vague instruction, Zhu would only say: “Go and listen to what the masses have to say–and then you’ll know what to do.”

Zhu’s comments on rejuvenation can perhaps be best understood in the context of the much-reported reluctance on the part of several septuagenarian colleagues–including President Jiang and NPC chief Li–to call it quits in the coming year. While touring Europe last September, Zhu said at a press conference that he would definitely retire in early 2003, because he was “too old” to serve a second term.


The premier’s remarks, however, were not reported in the official media. Nor were they well received by Jiang, 75, and Li, 73. It is significant that when he was again asked by reporters late last year whether he would call it quits, Zhu only said this question would be determined by prevailing rules and regulations.

The premier was, of course, echoing the answer given last October by Jiang at the APEC forum to a similar question about his retirement. The trouble with Jiang’s statement, however, is that there are no retirement rules for senior Communist party posts. And the fact that Zhu had to copy the president’s words said much about the leadership’s difficulty in arriving at a consensus on such an apparently clear-cut matter as retirement ages.

The premier’s injunction that cadres address criticisms and demands from society has been followed up to some extent. Last week, the government held an unprecedented public hearing on whether railway departments should raise the price of tickets during the coming Chinese New Year.

Beijing has also penalized officials responsible for mishaps ranging from accidents in coal mines with atrocious safety standards to marathon explosions in fireworks factories. However, according to a Beijing academic close to the Zhu camp, what the premier had in mind when he spoke about the need to be responsive to social grievances was corruption. It is well known that a number of big-time graft cases–including the Xiamen smuggling scandal and several instances of monkey business in the army–would not have been exposed had it not been for Zhu’s personal intervention. The academic said there was a linkage between Zhu’s injunction on cadres’ relations with the masses and the now-famous interview that Zhu Lin, the wife of NPC chief Li, had given to a couple of magazines late last year. In the interview, Zhu Lin denied she had ever been involved in business activities.

Beijing analysts said while Zhu would become an ordinary citizen in less than fourteen months, he could still make a difference in Chinese politics if he were to throw his full support behind relatively liberal Fourth Generation leaders such as Wen and Vice President Hu Jintao.

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.