China shocked as PM shoots from the hip

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The Independent Online
IN A BREAKTHROUGH for Chinese communists, the new prime minister yesterday showed that the medium really can be the message.

Zhu Rongji, with humour and only minimal propaganda rhetoric, took to the stage for a live-broadcast press conference at which he fielded questions on the pro-democracy protests in 1989, and on elections in China. He promised to "blaze my trail" with a bold programme including the overhaul of industry, the civil and medical services, financial systems, and housing.

The performance of Mr Zhu, 69, represented a seismic shift from his predecessor, the hardline Li Peng. Mr Li's press occasions have involved pre-selected journalists asking pre-cleared questions. Mr Zhu took anything that came his way, an approach which has not been seen since before 1989.

Nor would many of the topics discussed normally be aired on Chinese television. Mr Zhu was asked about 1958, when he was condemned as a "rightist" for criticising the Communist government and sent to the countryside. "I have learned a lot from that experience," he said. "But that experience was also unpleasant, so I don't want to mention that now."

The past reared its politically incorrect head again with a question about whether the 4 June 1989 crackdown was a "historical burden" for the new government announced at the National People's Congress (NPC), which ended yesterday. Mr Zhu, who in 1989 was mayor of Shanghai, is credited with calming protesters in the city by promising not to send in the army. Yesterday he toed the official line on the "resolute" measures which "stabilised" the country. The party had already "drawn a correct conclusion on that matter", he said.

The future gave Mr Zhu more scope to find his own words. He was asked when China's president and prime minister might be elected by universal suffrage. "Of course I'm in favour of democratic election," he said, praising village elections and elections inside enterprises. But the election of China's leaders involved "political restructuring, so that should be done according to legal procedures". And as for for the timing: "It's hard now for me to predict when such an election can take place".

The NPC delegates themselves yesterday put on an unusual show of what voting can be like. When the results of a vote on the report from the Supreme People's Procuratorate flashed up on the board, a record 44 per cent of delegates had said "no", or abstained. This was the highest protest vote recorded in the normally rubber-stamp NPC. These protests are seen as voicing widespread complaints about crime and corruption.

Mr Zhu reiterated his goals of overhauling state businesses and the creaking financial system and cutting the number of central government civil servants by half by the end of this year. And he joked that his picture on the cover of Time was "more good-looking" than the one in Newsweek, a slick way of letting the world know that he reads such international publications. The only thing he feared was letting down the people. "I will devote myself to the people and the country until the last day of my life," he said.