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COLUMN ONE

China's Impatient Would-Be Premier

Zhu Rongji averted bloodshed in Shanghai during 1989 protests. Now the man who cuts through red tape--and whose market reforms have earned the West's praise--is on a fast track.

March 05, 1998|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The saturation hagiography, including a nightly serialized documentary on China Central Television, is more extensive than that marking the 1993 centennial of the birth of People's Republic founder Mao Tse-tung. The television documentary stresses Chou's decency and practicality during the worst moments of the Communist era, including the 1958-61 "Great Leap Forward" and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

If he gets the job, as expected, Zhu will be only the fifth premier in the history of the People's Republic. But his route to power has not been without twists and turns, including the time he was kicked out of the Communist Party and another when he hauled manure in an ideological reform camp.

Imperial Ties

Zhu was born Oct. 1, 1928, at Changsha in Hunan province, which also produced Mao and dozens of other statesmen and poets over the centuries. According to a series of articles published last week in Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper, Zhu's family traces its ancestry to Zhu Quan, the 14th son of Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Ming Pao reported that several years ago, while on a visit to Anhui province, Zhu paid a private visit to the emperor's tomb near Fengyang.

But Zhu's personal history is much more humble. His father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was 10. He was raised by an uncle, Zhu Xuefang, who had three daughters and a son. According to the various biographies of Zhu, the family was so poor that the uncle kept his daughters out of school so that he could afford to educate his son and nephew.

An excellent student, Zhu attended Changsha No. 1 High School, considered the best school in the province. Report cards from the high school, obtained by Ming Pao, showed him at the top of his class, recording several perfect marks of 100. In 1947, he was accepted by two of China's most prestigious universities, Jiaotong University in Shanghai and Beijing's Qinghua University.

He attended Qinghua, majoring in electrical engineering. His ties to Qinghua have remained strong. He still lectures there occasionally and holds a position as dean of the school of management.

In 1948, one year before the Communist victory in the civil war with the Nationalists, Zhu joined the pro-Communist New Democratic Youth League at Qinghua. In 1949, just as the People's Republic came into being, he joined the Communist Party.

While at Qinghua--where he was elected class president and chairman of the student government committee--Zhu met his wife, Lao An, who shares his passion for Peking opera.

According to Guo Daohui, a classmate at Qinghua interviewed by Ming Pao, the marriage is very good. "When Zhu Rongji met with a series of setbacks," Guo said, "Lao An stood by him. They are really an all-weather couple."

Like her husband, Lao is said to be skilled at languages, capable of speaking English, Russian and French. They have a son and a daughter, both of whom studied in the United States.

A Political Outcast

After serving for several years as an economic planner with the State Planning Commission, Zhu suffered his first setback in 1957, when Chairman Mao called on the Chinese to "let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend." Emboldened by Mao's insincere appeal for criticism, Zhu stood up at a meeting and spoke critically for three minutes about leadership shortcomings.

Branded a reactionary, Zhu was kicked out of the Communist Party. He was rehabilitated in 1962 but exiled to the countryside eight years later during the Cultural Revolution for "ideological remolding." For more than five years, China's future head of government planted wheat, fed swine and hauled manure in rural northeastern China.

In all, Zhu spent nearly 10 years as a political outcast. But given the wild ideological swings that marked the Mao era, they were mostly good years to be disassociated from the regime. Moreover, by averting bloodshed in Shanghai, he escaped the stigma of 1989, when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians were gunned down by People's Liberation Army troops in Beijing.

In May 1989, when Li Peng declared martial law and accused Tiananmen Square demonstrators of "subversion," Zhu went on Shanghai television in an attempt to calm the citizenry of his city. While urging Shanghai's student protesters to back down, Zhu acknowledged that "the work of our party and government has many shortcomings."

Additionally, he publicly recognized the merits of the students' goals: "The broad masses of students, out of patriotic zeal, hope to promote democracy and punish corruption. This is entirely in line with the objectives our party and government are working hard to realize." Notably, he refused to condemn the students' actions, saying that history would show who was right or wrong.

After serving three years as Shanghai mayor, Zhu was called to Beijing and placed in charge of problems created by China's overheated economy, which was expanding wildly after more than a decade of market reforms.

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