September 27, 2011 / 6:08 AM / in 6 years

Insight: Blunt talk from China ex-premier stirs reform pot

BEIJING (Reuters) - Crumbling flood dykes in China decried as “tofu dregs” built by “parasites.” Erring bankers lashed as “half-wits” and crime “accomplices.” Special hotels for Communist Party elite dismissed as wasteful piles of “golden splendor.”

It is little wonder that the publication this month of former Premier Zhu Rongji’s blunt comments from his years in power have become best-sellers, finding eager readers in a nation whose current leaders are seen as wary and cautious.

Yet the reaction to Zhu’s four-volume selection from his time as vice premier from 1991 to 1998 and then as premier until early 2003 also reflects deeper anxieties coursing through China as it approaches a leadership transition late next year.

Reformist former officials and intellectuals have held up the 2,042 pages of Zhu’s words, many made public for the first time, as an unflattering mirror to the conservatism and conformism of current leaders. Magazine editors and Internet users have scoured the volumes for any comments that offer a message for the present.

“If this government is one of yes-men, we owe the people an apology,” is one from 1998 that has spread far online.

Another Zhu comment, this time from 2001: “I’ve been in charge of the economy for a decade, and still today 68 percent of state-owned businesses cook their books. I should be the first official dismissed.”

Indeed, many of the problems that dog China’s economy today dominate “The Authentic Speeches of Zhu Rongji”: local government debt and reckless bank loans, inflation and feverish urban growth, and corruption devouring public trust and coffers.

“Our country faces many potential crises that could erupt at any time,” Zhu said early in 1998. “Ordinary people are discontent about us in many ways. Especially, there is corruption among officials, the gulf between rich and poor, and the way some local officials act like tyrants.”

Analysts disagree over whether Zhu, a grey-haired 82-year-old who rarely appears in public, issued his long-prepared collection at this time to obliquely scold China’s current Communist leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, whose terms in power wind down late next year, and to urge their likely successors to do more.

“I would say, yes, he has intended this to send a message. He has used opportunities before to implicitly criticize the current government,” said Zheng Yongnian, the director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore who wrote an earlier study of Zhu.

Even if the timing of publication is coincidence, the enthusiasm for Zhu’s books reflects widespread impatience among many Chinese with their current leaders, said Chen Ziming, a Beijing-based political analyst who was imprisoned after 1989 for advocating democratic change.

Recent seminars, books and commentaries have echoed with a broad feeling among thinkers, both pro-market reform liberals and pro-party conservatives, that China’s problems will demand more decisive responses from the next leadership, mostly likely led by current Vice President Xi Jinping, said Chen.

“Zhu did things, made breakthroughs, and there’s a widespread feeling that the current leaders haven’t followed his example,” said Chen.

“I don’t see this is directed personally at Wen Jiabao,” he said of Zhu’s books. “But Wen’s calls for political reform have gotten nowhere, he hasn’t had the influence to act on his ideas, and so there’s nostalgia for Zhu Rongji and his style.”

HISTORY LESSONS

Growing numbers of retired Chinese leaders have published books and memoirs with an eye on their place in history. Although party censors can block some content, seniority gives these leaders some sway over what they publish and when.

Zhu’s collection offers a revealing but highly selective window into the reforms that transformed China from a beleaguered hold-out against the collapse of Soviet-style Communism in the early 1990s to an emerging superpower with economic growth rates envied by other governments.

Zhu dragged back the Chinese economy from over-heating in the early 1990s, and then as premier pushed through reforms that shut or privatized many state-owned firms and laid off workers, wrenched tax power from local officials to the central government, and launched housing ownership reforms that gave birth to a feverish real-estate boom.

Above all, Zhu coaxed and cajoled China’s way into the World Trade Organization in 2002 through grueling negotiations. At the time, many Chinese officials feared he had made so many concessions to gain entry that China’s economy would be hobbled.

By no means do all Chinese observers think Zhu’s tenure was an unalloyed success. Some say mis-steps in grains policy, tax distribution and state factory shutdowns left messes that his successors had to clean up in quieter ways.

But with the publication of Zhu’s books, liberal intellectuals and publications favoring market reform and political relaxation have cited him to suggest his successors failed to live up to his boldness and their promises.

That disillusionment is often aimed at President Hu and Premier Wen, whom critics say have failed to meet promises to rein in inequality and spread prosperity. Despite Wen’s repeated calls for political reform, the Communist Party leadership has overseen tightening controls on political life.

“Zhu Rongji’s work has become so popular, not specifically because of what he has done, but because of his leadership style and the progress he was able to make,” said Zheng, the researcher based in Singapore.

“There’s impatience, because there’s been no progress, no substantial, meaningful progress, from this current leadership.”

Others already have their eye on the next generation.

Zhou Ruijin, a former senior editor of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, suggested in a recent interview about Zhu’s works that the leaders likely to succeed Hu and Wen had much to learn from Zhu.

“The Zhu Rongji era was one of promoting big reforms, and it nurtured a group of brave risk-takers who were at the forefront of pioneering a market economy,” Zhou, a cheerleader for rapid market reforms in the 1990s, said in an interview with South Breeze Window, a pro-reform magazine published in south China.

“Today, with the atmosphere for reform deepening, there is still potential for big steps in reform.”

Editing by Brian Rhoads and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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