SHANGHAI -- China, a land with a vast and faceless bureaucracy, has a new political star.
Zhu Rongji, the reform-minded mayor of Shanghai, has been journeying beyond China's borders to make contacts with foreign investors, and along the way has impressed many with his openness and sense of humor. He travels to the United States next Saturday, heading the highest-level group of Chinese to visit America since China's crackdown on protesters in June 1989.
Western diplomats believe that the 62-year-old Zhu has the potential to rise to a top leadership position someday, and that if he succeeds, it will mean the triumph of pragmatic policies over the orthodox Marxist thinking now ascendant in China.
In fact, Credit Lyonnais Securities, a French banking and investment firm, described Zhu last March as "China's Gorbachev" and "a lone voice of moderation" during the army crackdown.
While the comparison is no doubt strained -- in part because Zhu does not yet have a broad power base in the two institutions that count most in China, the Communist Party and the army -- the report does reflect the positive image that Zhu projects both in his home city and abroad.
Zhu became mayor of China's largest city two years ago, and he quickly earned a reputation among other officials as a man who says little, keeps his word and gets things done.
Indeed, he found there was -- and still is -- a great deal to be done. Prewar Shanghai, however chaotic, was one of the leading centers of finance and trade in Asia. But its economy has declined, suffering from daunting problems that include an entrenched, calcified bureaucracy, decaying industries and a severe shortage of cash.
Zhu has moved to cut through Shanghai's bureaucratic red tape to make life easier for foreign investors, replacing the dozens of seals of approval required to approve new foreign-investment enterprises with a single office.
But in order for the city to really thrive, investors say, restrictions on foreign investments must be eliminated, approval procedures must be streamlined further, and Shanghai's financial markets must be allowed more freedom than they now enjoy.
"What Shanghai needs is not just dreams and hopes," said a senior Western business consultant in Shanghai. "Shanghai needs serious structural reforms. . . . Zhu is just one honest and decent person trying to oppose a juggernaut."
Zhu has traveled abroad repeatedly to solicit the support of businessmen and bankers to revamp Shanghai's outdated economy, last month traveling to Hong Kong and Singapore.
In Hong Kong, a British colony that will revert to Chinese rule in 1997, Zhu managed to avoid straying too far from the Communist Party's official line but still set himself apart from other Chinese officials who have labeled Hong Kong as an anti-socialist "subversive base." By the time he left, the colony's business leaders were praising him for his pragmatism, sincerity and self-confidence.
Zhu then took his case for Shanghai's rejuvenation to Singapore, where he was the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit that capitalist enclave since the June 3-4, 1989, army crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Beijing.
It was during the spring 1989 democracy movement that the lanky mayor seemed to distinguish himself as a moderate. During the seven-weeks of protest, Shanghai, like Beijing, saw massive demonstrations. But after the army assault in Beijing, Zhu pledged not to bring troops into his city.
He maintained order in Shanghai while distancing himself from the crackdown orchestrated by the top leadership in the capital. Yet, he is said to have maintained good relations with China's Communist Party boss, Jiang Zemin, who, as a former mayor of Shanghai, never had the impact on the city that Zhu has had.
Zhu next travels to the United States as head of a six-member delegation of Chinese mayors who will look at American cities and how they handle urban and environmental issues. Funding for the nearly three-week-long trip will come from American corporations, foundations and the U.S. Information Agency.
In his travels, Zhu is looking for assistance in creating his vision of what Shanghai could become: not only China's bustling financial capital, but also a center for high technology. This vision, of course, will depend on convincing foreign bankers and businessmen to provide Shanghai with billions of dollars in loans and investments over the next few years.
The task of finding those funds may become easier if Zhu and others with similar ideas of reform are allowed to rise in the leadership.
At the moment, Zhu is not a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo. Some observers had thought he would be elevated to membership in the 14-man body this year, but they have adjusted that forecast, saying it will likely happen later. Still, some see Zhu as a star on the rise who could restore economic reform if his course is not impeded.