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False nostalgia for Zhu Rongji
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - The popular stir created by the publication this month of a four-volume, 2,000-page tome of the speeches and correspondence of China's fiercely independent former premier, Zhu Rongji, may say more about dissatisfaction with the present government than it does about Zhu's own record.
Reviews of The Record of Zhu Rongji's Talks - which contains 348 entries from 1991 to 2003, all in Chinese - have been overwhelmingly positive, but its heady reception clearly demonstrates that the memory of Zhu, now 83, is a lot richer than the reality. Zhu's first book, Zhu Rongji Meets the Press, published in 2009, quickly became a bestseller, and the same happy fate no doubt awaits his present effort.
Both books have served to prompt a mass exercise in nostalgia for an earlier, better time that never was - Zhu's reign from 1991 to 1998 as China's vice premier and then, from 1998 to 2003, as its premier. Ironically, now that problems which had their genesis during Zhu's leadership - such as China's alarming wealth gap and the wanton destruction of the country's environment in pursuit of economic goals - have become full-blown issues of both national and international concern, people look back to his time as a superior era of greater clarity and firmer, more principled leadership.
It just wasn't so. The yearning is more for the Zhu persona and aura rather than the Zhu accomplishments. He was renowned as a tough, honest and charismatic administrator with zero tolerance for corruption, incompetence and the fawning servility that so many lower-level Chinese bureaucrats habitually show to their bosses.
This is the man who once warned: "I have never intimidated the masses ... I only intimidate corrupt officials."
His bluntness and moral rectitude made him many enemies in the rotten labyrinth of Chinese officialdom; at the same time, however, it won him the praise and respect of the Chinese people.
Since his retirement from public life, corruption has grown worse, not better, as social tensions and class resentments rise. So it is easy to look back on the Zhu years as a far better time, and his new book, like the previous one, encourages such a view.
Here is the assertive maverick premier chairing his first State Council meeting by exhorting each of the council's members "to be a troublemaker, not a yes-man".
And here is the champion of efficiency and transparency ordering an end to sumptuous banquets and entertainment that, until then, had become standard fare for state officials making regional inspections. Zhu specified that meals for visiting officials should not go beyond four dishes and one bowl of soup and should be held in government cafeterias rather than lavishly appointed ballrooms in five-star hotels.
Zhu also appears prescient in a number of the book's passages. For example, in light of the recent horrific train collision in Wenzhou on China's rapidly expanding high-speed rail network, Zhu's cautious attitude toward high-speed travel during his vice premiership will win wide applause today.
"I am less enthusiastic about building the Beijing-Shanghai railway project," he said in 1995, "as we need to provide help to those in more urgent need."
The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 figures prominently in sections of the book in which Zhu expresses pride in the role he played in maintaining China's soaring growth rate throughout the debacle. China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, following 15 years of often bitter negotiations, is another source of pride.
And Zhu is firm in his response to critics in Washington who accused China of currency manipulation and goaded the premier to allow the yuan to appreciate against the dollar.
"Some people say we should let the yuan appreciate," he said in a 2003 speech to the State Administration of Foreign exchange. "Do not listen to them."
The book reminds readers that Zhu was a leader of both style and substance. That 2,000-page reminder - coming ahead of next year's epochal change in China's leadership, which will see current Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao join Zhu in retirement - is likely a pointed one for present Communist Party leaders.
Zhu's legacy is one of reform, and the timing of the publication of his latest book is seen as giving a boost to the reformist wing of the party before next March's meeting of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, which will elect the new leadership team.
Much has been made of the fact that party mouthpiece the People's Daily, among many other publications, gave a glowing review to the book. But there is no surprise in this.
Zhu might have been an unusually outspoken and iconoclastic premier, but he was no radical. He wanted the same things for China - continued economic growth, rising incomes, greater transparency and reduced corruption - that current party leaders are working toward. But, like them, he also never dared to question the authoritarian one-party rule that, at the lower levels, is corrupt to the core and will do everything possible to cover up its complex culture of malfeasance.
Wen, Zhu's handpicked successor, while not as charming and charismatic as his mentor, is also popular among the people. Indeed, his modesty and common touch have earned him the sobriquet "the people's premier".
Although their personalities are different, Wen has made a point of carrying on in the Zhu tradition. Just as Zhu guided China through the turmoil of the financial crisis in Asia, Wen was at the helm during the global economic meltdown of 2008: While Western economies sank into recession, Wen kept China's ship sailing on smooth seas.
Like his predecessor, Wen is also known for his impatience with the kowtowing incompetence he routinely encounters among officials in the provinces, for his equally heartfelt diatribes against corruption and for his support for environmental protection. Wen has even stepped beyond Zhu's chosen ambit of commentary to make repeated calls for democratic reforms within the party, although the People's Daily and other party publications declined to publish those remarks.
While Wen was promoting democracy on CNN, the official Chinese media was deaf to his words.
So, in the end, Wen's premiership has been a lot like Zhu's: China's economic miracle has continued despite financial meltdowns all around, but - impressive rhetoric notwithstanding - so has its deepening corruption, rampant environmental abuse and gaping wealth gap; meanwhile, the party has grown even more repressive in its bid to silence its critics.
Moreover, Wen's job was made more difficult because he has labored in the charismatic shadow of Zhu, who easily outshone his predecessor - the staid and unpopular Li Peng, chiefly noted for his declaration of martial law against the student-led pro-democracy movement in June of 1989, his conservative approach to economic reform and the allegations of corruption that have dogged him since he left office.
The Zhu and Wen years both demonstrate not just China's remarkable economic progress and growing sophistication on the international stage but also the confusion surrounding its slowly evolving political culture. Both men served well and deserve economic kudos - and not one more than the other - but, on all other issues, they talked a far better game than they played.
Now is not the time for nostalgia.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1