Commentary: China: Finally, A Changing Of The Guard

It's the kind of publicity whirlwind rarely seen by a Chinese leader. Days after Zhu Rongji wowed Chinese TV viewers with a live press conference, where he joked with reporters and fielded questions on such taboo topics as democracy and the 1989 Beijing massacre, the new Premier was in northern China meeting with suffering blue-collar workers. Then he was off to London. Then Paris. Now, U.S. diplomats are pushing to get Zhu to visit Washington this fall.

That a top official is portraying himself as globally minded and answerable to the public speaks volumes about the new style of leadership emerging in Beijing. Compared with such stodgy apparatchiks as former Premier Li Peng--and especially to the xenophobic Communist Party fossils who reigned just a few years ago--the change is remarkable. President Jiang Zemin, like Zhu a fluent English speaker, charmed Americans last summer with an unscripted question-and-answer session at Harvard University. Such top leaders as Vice-Premiers Li Lanqing and Wu Bangguo and Central Bank chief Dai Xianglong also impress foreign visitors with their detailed, no-nonsense explanations of China's free-market reforms and economic problems.

It's more than PR. Behind this new era of frankness is a historic changing of the guard. With the passing or retirement of revolutionaries such as Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yuan, and Yang Shangkun, Beijing is now dominated by technocrats whose main concern is solving China's many problems. Of the top seven party leaders, five have degrees from prestigious Chinese universities. Jiang and Zhu, aged 71 and 69, are engineers. So is Vice-President Hu Jintao. Three of China's four vice-premiers have extensive economic experience. Below them, younger technocrats--some U.S.-trained--hold high posts in the Finance Ministry, banks, regulatory bodies, and think tanks.

The impact of this generational change already is profound. No longer stifled by a powerful old guard, the leadership is wasting no time pushing its radical agenda. With Zhu rather than the conservative Li Peng controlling the bureaucracy, a crash plan to overhaul China's financial system, state enterprises, and major ministries is under way. Big foreign investments that have been stymied for years are getting approved. And calls for political reform, muted since '89, are resurfacing. "This government is business-oriented," says Fan Gang, director of the National Economic Research Institute. "Instead of talking about principles, they are looking for solutions."

To be sure, Washington and Beijing still have lots of differences. Jiang and Zhu are no democrats. They are unlikely to compromise on Taiwan and Tibet, and they believe the state should retain a big stake in industry. But neither had a hand in the Tiananmen Square massacre. That will make it easier for President Bill Clinton, who will visit Beijing in June, to appear cordial.

Of course, there's still the danger that Zhu's economic reforms will fail and cause a relapse of more central control. Also, branches of government that aren't managing the economy tend to be staffed with political appointees. Take the Supreme People's Procuratorate, China's top crime-fighting agency. The new head, Han Zhubin, is a railways-ministry vet with no legal experience or even a college education. But in the economic ministries, progress will be difficult to undo. "They've gotten rid of most of the incapable people," says Yan Xuetong, a director at a Chinese foreign-policy think tank.

China won't become like the rest of the world overnight. But as power shifts toward these more outward- looking technocrats, the rest of the world should find dealing with China ever more comfortable.

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