Zhu Rongji and the transformation of modern China

Our China editor Dan Slater reviews Laurence j. Brahm''s book.

Laurence Brahm's biography of Chinese premier Zhu Rongji may seem too detailed and academic for some, but dedicated readers who want to understand the mind of one of China's greatest mandarins will find the effort worthwhile. Brahm, a political economist and lawyer, is obviously an admirer of Zhu and has (consequently?) good access to materials and senior officials.

Most fascinating is the description of how power is exercised in the People's Republic. The manner in which decisions are made and how they are executed has always been a mysterious process. The Chinese methods of exercising power come across as bizarre, a reminder of just how different China is from most other countries.

For example, I have always been bored and impatient with the slogans appearing in Chinese newspapers and assumed that Chinese people felt the same. So it's a bit of a shock that Zhu's actions - given his image as a reformer - are often accompanied by old-style slogans attempting to sum up the essence of his policy.

This attitude dovetails with Zhu's frequent use of command economy tactics to get his actions implemented - that of setting excessively tight deadlines to generate a response from the inert bureaucracy. To sell government bonds, he ordered all civil servants acquire them out of their savings. He also set quotas for bank lending as the best way to control credit.

His authority seems to have come just as much from the strength of his personality as from his position. He has never been afraid of yelling at his underlings and firing them for wearing accessories he deemed irreconcilable with their official salaries.

Yet how much power did he really wield? Can one man make the difference against China's bureaucracy and vested interests?

Zhu was undoubtedly successful in restraining the economic frenzy following Deng's famous Southern tour of the early 1990s, which sparked runaway growth in Southern coastal regions. He behaved like an autocrat, trod on many toes and got away with it.

There's a tragi-comic description of Zhu's stern efforts to rein in the skyrocketing economy in the early 1990s and the resistance he encountered from Great Wall boss Shen Taifa. Shen cheekily threatened to sue the central bank, which had ordered businesses to return illegally raised capital. Zhu was not amused, and the unfortunate Shen was investigated for fraud - and then executed.

Perhaps this was unfair on Shen, who appears to have been removed for the crime of contradicting the premier, rather than for activities no more heinous than any others that were going on at the time.

Brahm is also very good at illuminating the psyche of the population in his narration of how banks coped with being unable to pay back their depositors in 1993.

Banks would lock a door and hang a notice on it saying "political study session". When anybody tried to take out money rather than deposit it, he was told the department was busy strengthening ideological understanding, and please come back tomorrow. People flashing cash for deposit were waved through.

This tactic apparently worked fine and is a reminder of the hold Communist Party ideology still has over the population. Even now, with the Chinese banks essentially bankrupt, there is no fear of a run on the banks.

Brahm portrays Zhu's vulnerabilities as well - capturing him tossing and turning at night planning how to slow down the 1990s problem of an overheating economy without appearing to contradict the wisdom of Deng. He saved his deflation programme by uncovering an obscure quotation of Deng's calling for quality goods, not just production for the sake of it.

The most important question the book poses, although implicitly, is the extent to which the Communist Party can reform itself.

Zhu is one of the 'men of goodwill' who occasionally crop up in history, motivated by a constructive idealism. History, unfortunately, is full of good Chinese emperors constrained by their environment. Or to take a more modern example of my own, Zhu could turn out to be more like Russia's Count Sergei Witte, the modernizing finance minister under the Romanovs, whose superhuman efforts to drag the autocracy into twentieth-century economics were not enough to prevent the Tsars from succumbing to revolution.

Formidable as Zhu is, the virtues of one man can often only slow the process of decay not reverse it.

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