Power makes China's sour chief smile

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The Independent Online
CHINA'S most miserable-looking politician cracked a rare grin yesterday after being voted the new prime minister, to repeated applause from parliament. But Zhu Rongji gave the impression of being a man with little time for the theatrical side of Chinese politics.

Mr Zhu had sat resolutely making notes as red electronic boards in the Great Hall of the People in Peking flashed up the 98-per-cent result: 2,890 votes in favour, 29 against and 31 abstentions. Loud clapping from the delegates elicited a quick bow before he returned to his writing. Only when President Jiang Zemin nudged him during a second bout of applause did Mr Zhu rise and put his hands together in a gesture of thanks. It took a vigorous handshake from the outgoing prime minister, Li Peng, to draw out that rare thing in Chinese politics - a beaming smile from Mr Zhu.

For the first time this session, National People's Congress (NPC) delegates yesterday also showed they did not always do what was expected of them. The vote for the appointment of Han Zhubin as chief state prosecutor saw nearly 35 per cent of delegates voting against or abstaining. The protest vote probably indicated that, at a time when crime and corruption are rising, delegates felt Mr Han's previous position as minister of railways had not qualified him for the job.

Mr Zhu's election was a foregone conclusion. But it marks what many believe could be a new era in Chinese politics. At 69, he has let it be known he is a one-term prime minister, which means he will be less wary of making enemies by driving through his ambitious reform plans. The glummest man in Chinese politics is also set to be the busiest. Mr Zhu plans savage cuts in China's bloated bureaucracy and intends to overhaul loss-making state enterprises. Millions of state jobs will go during his five-year term.

China's annual meeting of the NPC closes tomorrow, and Mr Zhu is due that morning to give his first press conference as prime minister.

His appointment is supposed to herald a more open style, so there will be much interest in whether he breaks the habit of his predecessor and takes questions which have not been pre-scripted.

China's population, already the world's largest, will keep growing until it hits 1.6 billion in 2050, according to the state media, AP reports.

Officials said China will not change its family-planning policy restricting most urban families to one child. Many rural areas allow two children. At the end of 1997 the population of China, including Hong Kong, was 1.243 billion.