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Chinese Premier's Debut With Media Is All the Talk

Asia: Unlike his wooden predecessor, a humorous Zhu Rongji ranges freely over topics posed by reporters.

March 20, 1998|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — For the past 10 years, the routine was always the same: Nervous, dour Premier Li Peng would appear once a year before the assembled domestic and world media, woodenly read prepared answers to four carefully screened questions and then depart.

Chinese officials called it a news conference.

But Zhu Rongji, in his first such appearance as China's new premier Thursday at the Great Hall of the People, this time before a national television audience, changed all that.

Zhu, 69, the intense economic chief installed Tuesday as China's new head of government, fielded questions for an hour and 15 minutes, joked with reporters, candidly described government failures and showed the Chinese people a new style of leadership.

The contrast between the incoming and outgoing premiers, in substance as well as style, could not have been greater. It appeared to lift the spirits of many Chinese who watched.

"There were none of the usual hollow words," said one retired Communist Party cadre. "Generally speaking, I think the Chinese people were impressed by his determination and clear-cut language."

Zhu did dodge some questions on more sensitive subjects, such as the 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square, although he was careful to point out that he was far away in Shanghai when the army tanks rolled into Beijing.

When a questioner asked him about a dark period in his past--the late 1950s and early '60s, when he was denounced as a "rightist" and kicked out of the Communist Party for several years--Zhu didn't duck, but didn't elaborate much either.

"I have learned a lot from that experience, but it was unpleasant, so I don't want to discuss it more," he said.

But the overall tone of the news conference was established early when he responded to a question about democracy posed by a reporter from Time magazine.

"Yesterday, I saw the cover of the latest issue of Time magazine. It carried my picture," Zhu answered, referring to a regional Asian edition of the U.S. magazine.

"A few days ago, Newsweek also had my photograph on its cover, but the Time photo really seemed a bit better-looking than that one. But I can't really blame Newsweek because in fact I am rather ugly."

Unaccustomed to such self-deprecating jocularity in public, the five vice premiers sitting beside Zhu on the podium looked stunned, smiling nervously and gazing at the television cameras in disbelief.

Moving to the democracy question, Zhu said that, of course, he was in favor of democracy as a principle. He said he recently had read a favorable report by a U.S. think tank about elections at the village level in China. He noted that Chinese counties and larger municipalities also had begun to elect their officials.

But as far as directly electing presidents or premiers such as himself, that might take time: "Procedures for democratic elections differ between China and foreign countries, and between East and West," he concluded.

Zhu took time to banter with a Taiwanese television journalist working for a Hong Kong television network, who said the new premier was her "idol," and to make fun of reporters who have described him as China's economic czar or "China's Gorbachev."

But when his talk turned toward government failures to deal with China's formidable economic problems, Zhu raged emotionally against the machine he now heads.

He accused government bureaucrats of "eating" funds earmarked for education and science.

"Where has all the money gone?" he asked rhetorically. While outlining his own plan to spend huge sums on infrastructure, he decried foolish state spending on unnecessary buildings and "indiscriminate" projects.

He pledged to cure the government of its spendthrift ways, causing one viewer, a retired Chinese diplomat, to remark: "Obviously, his determination is very great. He spoke as if he were making an oath."

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