China will not follow Russia down the stony path of political reform

Rupert Cornwell on Premier Zhu Rongji
YESTERDAY morning in Greenwich, a few moments before 9.30 am, a cruiseboat, rather oddly named the Silver Baracuda, eases up to the pier and an elderly man disembarks, surrounded by a great throng of retainers. Briskly, he makes his way to a black limousine which will ferry him to the Observatory, half hidden in the mists above. Just a handful of us, happy for such rare distraction on the way to work. are at the riverside to see him. A strange buzz is in the air nonetheless. Zhu Rongji, China's new Prime Minister, is making his first visit to the West and expectations are huge. Many indeed have already anointed him as the next great reformer of his country: the man who will seal its transformation into an economic superpower and (why not?) a democracy as well.

Now misty mornings in Greenwich, when palaces float on air and the sky and the river become one, have a way of playing tricks with the memory. As I watched Zhu yesterday, mine went back to 1984, when an earlier reforming Communist upon whom great hopes were pinned, arrived in London to give the world a first glimpse of what he was about. That of course was soon- to-be General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, "a man we can do business with" , as Mrs Thatcher famously commented. But even she had no inkling what business would bring - a negotiated end to the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the space of just seven years.

Understandably, Zhu (when we start calling him "Mr Zhu", we will really have taken him to our hearts) loathes being referred to as "China's Gorbachev". He has no intention of being instrument of the disintegration of his country and its ruling caste. Even so, the superficial parallels are irresistible: the early visits to London, the aura of reform, the uninspiring gerontocracies back home, the tingling hint that mysterious societies might be about to open themselves to the world.

So let's start by getting a few things in perspective. Zhu will be 70 this year, the same age as his predecessor Li Peng, he of Tiananmen Square infamy. This does not disqualify him as a reformer - indeed by the standards of Chinese leaders, 70 is only advanced middle age. But there has been no generational change of the kind represented by Mr Gorbachev, the vigorous, supremely poised leader, then aged just 53, heir apparent to a string of wheezing old men, whose mere ability to walk unaided made him an object of wonder.

Second, though the truth was concealed behind a forest of nuclear rockets, the Soviet Union of 1984 was economically rotten to the core. But Zhu is someone we have to do business with, not because China is a menace to regional security or can blow us off the face of the planet (though maybe it can) - but because the business of China is business.

On the basis of purchasing power (i.e. what people actually produce and consume rather than what exchange rates say they do) it is now the second largest economy on earth. The important news from Peking of late has not been the testing of a new weapon, threats to Taiwan or an egregious abuse of human rights; but the assurance that its currency will not be devalued. Assuming this promise is kept, it should make the difference between success and failure in containing Asia's financial crisis.

And unlike the Soviet Union that Gorbachev was representing fourteen years ago, China is already rejoining the world. Yes, human rights still make the loudest headlines. More quietly, however, China has much improved its relations with the US and Russia, not to mention its neighbours in the region. Though many of its trade practices offend, it is offering real concessions in its campaign to join the World Trade Organisation. With us, Hong Kong no longer bedevils relations; if ever there was a moment to "play the China card", as the Americans used to say in another context, this is it.

Yes, Europe is accused of soft-pedalling human rights. Remember though, it wasn't constant nagging from the West about the Gulag that persuaded Mr Gorbachev to change the Soviet Union's ways - but his realisation, after a quarter of century spent administering that mendacious system, that the coercions and rigidities of the system were why his country was slipping ever further behind the West. What he did not realise was that matters were beyond cure. The lie could no longer be sustained; but the lie turned out to be the only thing that sustained the system.

The last Soviet leader made the mistake - though in truth he had little choice - of putting political reform ahead of economic reform (remember glasnost?). By contrast, China's economic achievement is already fact. The modernisation of its economy, and perforce the modernisation of its political system will continue. But Zhu and his colleagues will do their utmost to ensure the first proceeds much more quickly than the second. It's not a trick you can pull off indefinitely, but China is likely to remain an authoritarian state for many years, albeit in the name of a Communist ideology long emptied of all meaning.

And one final reason to think that Zhu will not turn out to be China's Gorbachev. Caution is second nature to China's leaders, and they remember what happened back in May 1989 when Gorbachev visited China at the zenith of his international prestige and popularity. The students adopted him as symbol of the democracy they yearned for; for a moment - until the tanks rolled in at Tiananmen - it looked as though one one of the most inspirationally mistimed state visits ever would bring about, not the end to 30 years of sulking hostility between Russia and China it was designed to achieve, but revolution. Zhu himself was Mayor of Shanghai when Mr Gorbachev paid a chaotic visit to his city. I was there too, and was electrified. Zhu must have been scared out of his wits. No, Zhu will not be another Gorbachev. Another Russian model comes to mind.

As the motorcade drove off into the mist up towards the Observatory, my mind wandered again - this time backwards by 300 years, but only a mile up-river, to Deptford. The town was then playing host to another ruler from the East, a giant of a man six-feet seven-inches tall, who also wanted to find out about the West. He stayed four months, learning about shipbuilding - then as vital to his ambitions as financial services are to those of modern China (which Zhu discussed at the Bank of England yesterday). The visitor of 1698 gave his name as Peter Mikhailov, but it was an open secret he was really Peter the Great. When the Tsar returned home to Russia, he was as ruthless and autocratic as ever. But Peter modernised his country as none since, not even Gorbachev. And that, I would wager, will be the case with Zhu.