Zhao Jin, a bright, 31-year-old officer in the Chinese Army, like most soldiers has enjoyed his latest assignment in the relative comfort of Peking. But now his father, Zhao Ziyang, is about to become premier of China, and young Zhao has been packed off to the rough and sometimes dangerous Yunnan border.
It is a characteristic move for the elder Zhao, at 61 apparently bent on establishing for himself the same reputation for evenhandedness that made the late premier Chou En-lai the most beloved of all recent Chinese leaders.
Nevertheless, Zhao, who is to be elected premier next week by the National People's Congress, presents a profile that seems not quite in focus.
Although Zhao is seemingly close to the influential party Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, his career suggests links to important Politburo members not in Deng's group. He has made his reputation as an economic innovator, yet his reforms face rough going in the bureaucracy of Peking, where he has less than one year's experience.
Unlike the late premier Chou, Zhao has had little experience abroad. Until two recent trips to Western and Eastern Europe, he apparently had never set foot outside China. One diplomat who has met him shrugs this off: "I don't think that's a problem. He's very smart and smooth, and has lots of people to brief him."
A semiretired Shanghai clerk summed up what appears to be a widespread impression of Zhao: "He is willing to take responsibility; he works very hard. I think most people really like him and have great hopes for him."
From 1975 until early this year, Zhao (pronounced Jow) was the Communist Party chief in China's most populous, richest and strife-torn province, Sichuan. He encouraged bonuses for the best workers, better prices and more free markets for farm goods, and oppoortunities for factory managers to keep some of their profits to buy new equipment and start new product lines.
It was a pragmatic administration that nicely suited the views of Deng, who returned to national leadership in 1977 after his nemesis, Mao Tse-tung, had died. It has been assumed that Deng singlehandedly promoted Zhao to a vice premiership and has now anointed him as the successor to Hua Guofeng, the party chairman who is relinquishing his post as head of the government.
However, a review of Zhao's party career, which goes back at least to the 1940s, suggests that he has longstanding ties with Deng. Much of Zhao's career was spent in South China, working for men who tried to stake out a middle ground in the battle between Deng and Mao. Today, that group is represented by two men just above and below Deng in the official party hierarchy, Vice Chairman Ye Jianying and Li Xiannian, and Zhao's elevation may also be credited to them.
Deng's real protege is Hu Yaobang, a tiny, balding party technician who seems to have been promoted to tandem with Zhao. Hu would run the all-important party apparatus in the next generation, and Zhao the technocrat would see to the less important, day-to-day government chores. If Zhao does have the special blessing of Ye and Li, that also makes it easier for Deng to elevate him to premier and shove aside the unreliable Hua. Whether Hu, so closely tied to Deng, can duplicate Zhao's feat and replace Hua as chairman remains to be seen.
When powerful patrons like Deng, 76, Ye, 82 and Li, 75, pass from the scene, it may be more difficult for Zhao, with so little Peking experience, to push the ambitious economic decentralization and liberalization he is so nakedly committed to.
Zhao's insistence on capitalist-style management of local factories, on emphasizing bonuses and profits, has caused him trouble before. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, when his patrons in Peking failed to find any safe middle road between Mao and Deng's group, Red Guards descended on Zhao. On Feb. 25, 1967, he was marched through the streets of Canton, the capital of Guangdong Province, where he served as party chief. People cursed his name. The charges included advocating "material incentives" and "learning from spontaneous capitalist forces" as well as "putting production before politics."
Zhao was born in 1919 in Hua County, Henan Province, the son of a middle-class family that apparently included some landlords. He apparently received no more than the equivalent of a high school education before eventually finding his way into the party. His wife, Liang Bochi, was also a party member. He had at least two children, his son Zhao Jin and a daughter now studying here.
There is little information about his early career, but he seems to lack the party credentials of Hu, who like Deng participated in the Long March of the mid-1930s, the great communist retreat. Zhao was reported serving as secretary of the party affairs committee in the Henan-Hubei-Anhui border area in 1948. In 1951 after liberation he was transferred to Guangdong. He rose steadily under the tutelage of Tao Zhu, who led a team of northern party officials battling the backward ways of that large, southern province.
After being removed from office in the Cultural Revolution, Zhao appeared to return to public life earlier than most, as an official in Inner Mongolia in May 1971. This may again reflect his ties to Ye and Li, who survived the Cultural Revolution with Peking positions relatively intact. Deng, on the other hand, did not return to public life until 1973, and Hu even later.
By 1972 Zhao was back in Guangdong, helping purge the confederates of former defense minister Lin Piao, who had caused the downfall of Zhao and his patron, Tao. In 1975 he moved to Sichuan, putting together an administration that returned economic health to an area severely damaged by the Cultural Revolution.
Sichuan was also, importantly, the home province of Deng Xiaoping, giving Zhao a special relationship with the man who would become China's most influential leader after Mao died. In 1976, when Deng suffered a brief purge in Mao's last days, wallposters in Sichuan and Canton blasted Zhao as a stooge of Deng. Zhao survived, however, perhaps another indication of his ties to Ye and Li, while Deng went down a second time.
Journalists who met Zhao in Sichuan described him as unusually relaxed and urbane, a strong echo of Chou En-lai. In Peking Zhao has seemed stiffer, more formal in public appearances, perhaps more conscious of the spotlight on him. His hair last year seemed streaked with gray, but now in the harsh television lights of the National People's Congress, it is jet black.