Zhu's Trip to U.S. Ends on Bright Note
By John Pomfret
But just as important, Zhu's stops in Chicago, New York and Cambridge, Mass., also did much to salvage what could have been a politically damaging trip for the 70-year-old premier. By prompting President Clinton to agree to resume WTO talks later this month, Zhu will now be able to return to Beijing with something tangible. This is good news for Zhu, analysts say, and good news for China's reforms.
"On Saturday when Zhu left Washington, I was convinced that this was a disaster -- for him and for China's chances in the WTO," said a European diplomat who monitored the trip. "By the time he left New York a few days later, he had single-handedly saved the trip and saved himself. Clinton didn't help him at all. It was Zhu out there alone, playing the United States like a violin."
There is no shortage of forces in China who would have profited from failed summitry in the United States. Over the past year as premier, Zhu, with his gruff micro-manager style and his intolerance of corruption, has made enemies across China.
His program to slash the lumbering bureaucracy by about 50 percent has won him few friends in China's ministries. His crackdown on smuggling has enraged many officials in southern China who benefited from the multi-billion-dollar-a-year trade in contraband. His willingness to allow state-run firms to go bankrupt or be sold to private investors has squeezed the massive ministries that used these firms as their private sinecures. His insistence that infrastructure projects be investigated for shoddy workmanship and his demands that officials responsible for the bad work be prosecuted have increased local opposition.
His efforts to limit corruption and increase accountability for huge projects, such as the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam, have put him on a collision course with his predecessor Li Peng, who doled out these projects to his political allies. Finally, Zhu's willingness to break the "iron rice bowl" of China's work force has hurt his reputation among the millions in the working class who have been laid off as part of this economic reform.
"Zhu has insulted everyone," said Nora Sun, a former U.S. Commerce Department official and now a private business consultant in Shanghai who acknowledges being a "fan" of the premier. "He's axing left and right. The cadres hate him. The ministers hate him. Everybody hates him. And he's doing what's right for China."
But even those who say Zhu is the best thing to happen to China since the rise of Deng Xiaoping, who opened China to the outside world in 1978, acknowledge he has some serious faults.
Zhu's management style has irritated even some of his closest followers. Last September, for example, Zhu suddenly closed the Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp., an investment arm of the Guangdong provincial government that had amassed more than $4 billion in debt.
The problem with the order, Western business people said, was that the fabled former mayor of Shanghai, known in the West as "One-Chop" Zhu, did nothing to prepare the market. The closure notice -- blunt, executed with little apparent concern for the consequences and without a legal framework that would guarantee its success -- mirrors a pattern of recent decisions opposed by Western business executives and Chinese officials alike.
"Being 'One Chop' Zhu in a one-horse town [Shanghai] is one thing," said a Western observer in Guangzhou. "But in China, it's a different matter. These methods can't be applied across the board."
Zhu's defenders argue that he can't afford to float political balloons or delegate too much authority because invariably someone will take advantage of the inside information and limit the effectiveness of his orders.
Zhu's supporters also say that to understand Zhu's approach, it is necessary to appreciate the strength of opposition to change in China. Zhu cannot even get reliable statistics about growth in his own country. Last year, for example, the Communist Party set 8 percent as its target economic growth rate. At the end of the year, only Xinjiang province, home to 1 percent of China's population, acknowledged that its economy grew less than 8 percent. While Zhu's aides set the growth rate at 7.8 percent, few Western economists believe it surpassed 5 percent.
Zhu took a considerable political gamble in traveling to the United States. And in trying to close the WTO deal, he also risked riling powerful economic lobbies in China. To curry favor in the United States, he agreed to lift import bans on wheat from the Pacific Northwest and on citrus fruit from the politically potent states of California and Florida. China-United States flights will also be doubled.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company