BEIJING — It's easy to spot Zhu Rongji among a group of senior leaders at official functions here. Whether it's at the airport to greet a returning fellow Politburo member or at the Great Hall of the People for a banquet, he's the one who looks most uncomfortable. His body language says: This is a waste of time.
Zhu, tapped as China's new premier, has no patience for the interminable banqueting and formalized protocol that characterize business and government here. On road trips as China's top economic official, he agrees to only one formal meal with his nervous hosts. After that, he dines alone to save time and money.
Cutting through China's red tape and formality has earned Zhu, 69, a reputation as a straight-talking facilitator. His staff, both cowed and awed by his authority, refers to him simply as "The Boss."
Western diplomats laud his sophistication and urbanity. Zhu, they say, has proved his managerial toughness as China's chief market reformer. Also reassuring to foreigners: He speaks English, the international language of the marketplace. He studied it diligently even while serving in a Cultural Revolution reform camp.
Younger Chinese remember him gratefully as the man who, as mayor of Shanghai during the 1989 democracy movement, refused to summon the People's Armed Police and deftly avoided bloodshed in China's largest city. Older Chinese marvel at his skill as a musician, singing classical Peking opera or accompanying his wife on the stringed hu qin instrument.
Best of all, Zhu's supporters say, the man who has directed China's supercharged economy since 1992 is nothing at all like China's much-maligned lame-duck premier, Li Peng.
At the conclusion of the two-week session of the National People's Congress that opens today, Zhu is expected to replace Li at the head of the Chinese government. Li--cast as one of the "butchers of Beijing" for his hard-line role in the 1989 crackdown on Beijing's Tiananmen Square demonstrators--has completed the two consecutive five-year terms permitted under China's Constitution.
As a concession to his conservative supporters in the Communist Party, the National People's Congress is expected to name Li, also 69, its new chairman.
In the carefully choreographed protocol of the Communist Party, Li will keep his No. 2 ranking in the Politburo behind President and party chief Jiang Zemin. Thus, Zhu will be first in government but third in the party pecking order.
Some fear that this awkward arrangement may create political tensions, not only between the incoming and outgoing premiers but also with top leader Jiang, who also presides over China's powerful military.
When Zhu served in the late 1980s under Jiang, then the Shanghai party secretary, said former senior party official Xu Jiatun, who now lives in Orange County, "the gossip was that there was a lot of tension between the two. Zhu was held in higher esteem in Shanghai than Jiang."
Nonetheless, Zhu's anticipated elevation to the premiership has lifted the spirits and heightened expectations of many in China's emerging white-collar class of businesspeople and reform-minded bureaucrats. "Everyone knows that when a new official takes office," said one scholar, quoting an ancient dictum about the administrator's need for a quick, impressive start, "he must light three fires."
According to advance indications, Zhu has enough kindling for more than three blazes.
Among the expected changes is a major reorganization of government ministries in an attempt to lessen the Communist Party's dominant--often stifling--role. Under this plan, several new super-ministries would be created and reconfigured along market lines. Some ministries with direct industrial links--most notably electronics, electric power, coal mining, machinery, metallurgy and chemistry--would be reborn as corporations or, alternatively, as less centralized "industry associations."
The Beijing-based official Economic Times newspaper reported that the restructuring would eliminate 4 million government jobs, including 100 minister-level positions.
Other rumored radical proposals include the sale of long-term land leases in the underdeveloped regions of western China to private developers. Now, all land and mineral resources belong to the state.
Fittingly--and perhaps not accidentally--Zhu's ascendancy comes just as state-controlled media are engaged in lavish coverage marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of China's longest-serving and most-revered premier, the late Chou En-lai. Chou--the most cosmopolitan of the original core of "Long March Communists"--served as premier from the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 until his death in 1976.