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Monday, March 16, 1998 Published at 16:42 GMT

World: Analysis

The laughing prime minister

Zhu Rongji has a reputation as "a man that likes to get things done"

China's parliament has approved the nomination of Zhu Rongji as the country's new prime minister at a time of critical economic transition. Mr Zhu has a formidable reputation as a tough, hands-on manager but how will the 69-year-old former deputy prime minister cope with governing the world's most populous nation? From Beijing, Duncan Hewitt reports.

[ image: BBC Correspondent Duncan Hewitt]
BBC Correspondent Duncan Hewitt
Laughter may not be a phenomenom readily associated with Chinese leaders, but Zhu Rongji has proved himself adept at charming international audiences with his blunt, often self-deprecating style.

He is one of three men involved in a re-shuffle at the top of China's legislature. It elected outgoing Premier Li Peng as its new chairman on Monday, but 200 delegates embarrassed the leader most closely associated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square. They voted against his appointment.

The National People's Congress also confirmed the position of Hu Jintao, 55, as heir apparent to China's leadership by electing him to the formerly ceremonial position of vice-president.

President Jiang, China's most powerful man, was rubber-stamped in office for another five years as head of state. He was also returned for a second term as Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

But Zhu Rongji is the rising star. At last year's World Bank/IMF conference in Hong Kong he had business and economic leaders eating out of his hand when he said they were welcome to open banks in China, " ... but please don't come too quickly. If you come too quickly and if you can't make any money because of that, please don't complain to me."

One of the reasons foreign investors like Zhu Rongji is that he has a reputation for getting things done. Anne Yang, for many years head of the US China Business Council in Beijing, has observed him in action.

"He personally follows up on all his policies and directives," she says. "He uses a meritocracy, he puts in place people who are capable and also respond. And also he's willing to fire people, which is pretty unusual in China. And so people do respond when Zhu Rongji wants something."

Zhu Rongji's determination may stem from his experiences as a victim of Maoist political purges in the 1950s and 1960s. Early promise saw him given a job in the state planning commission fresh from university, where he studied electrical engineering. Yet his pragmatic and forthright approach brought him two separate spells of re-education in the countryside.

[ image: Li Peng has become the new chairman of China's parliament]
Li Peng has become the new chairman of China's parliament
In the 1980s though, Zhu Rongji bounced back, rising rapidly through a string of economic posts until by 1989, China's year of political unrest, he had become mayor of Shanghai.

As popular protests that year spread from Beijing to Shanghai, Zhu Rongji's record as an opponent of corruption helped him retain significant public sympathy, despite the execution of several protesters who derailed and burnt a train.

His public pledge not to call in the army to disperse demonstrations was widely felt to have defused a major crisis in the city. Soon, with his former Shanghai boss Jiang Zemin, now party leader, Zhu Rongji became deputy prime minister.

According to Professor Song Guoqing of Beijing University, his success in taming runaway inflation while maintaining economic growth proved his qualifications for the top job. "In China, especially in the reform process, different people have different opinions. So there needs to be someone who has a hard character, who can do things quickly.

In the past five years Mr Zhu has shown he is a suitable person, also a man who can get agreement from others. Now though Zhu Rongji faces a whole new set of challenges."

At a time when China needs to create jobs to absorb millions of unemployed, the economy is up against an increasingly saturated consumer market, with falling spending and prices. The challenge for Zhu Rongji is to achieve the same success in tackling a flagging economy as he demonstrated in cooling the overheating of the early 1990s.

Zhu Rongji's supporters say that at the age of 69, he has no political ambitions beyond his five-year term, and will therefore be willing to take tough decisions like the recently announced plan to slash China's bloated bureaucracy. Yet if he is to succeed, and maintain social and economic stability, Mr Zhu will need a full repertoire of political skills as well as a deep reserve of political will.

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