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Inside the mind of Deng’s intellectual successor

by Tom Plate

The biggest question about China at the moment is the buoyancy of its economy. Suddenly there are serious worries.

In China people might believe Americans wish for their economic collapse. This is not true. If only because of the intimate interdependence and indeed inter-reliance of our two great economies, those days of evil thinking are long gone.

Imagine this of China today: that its economy, directed by a Beijing control tower, holds 1.35 billion people in a giant jetliner that once required an eternity to take off but, once airborne (as it has been, remarkably, for two decades), must maintain a minimum speed to avoid stalling — or, worse.

Recent reports, including from official Chinese authorities, certify that the economy is slowing. But by how much? And, if by too much, might not this gigantic economy face a crash landing?

The question of maintaining a proper cruising speed for what is now the second- largest aggregate economy was always uppermost on the mind of a man named Zhu Rongji. Shanghai’s former mayor and party chief became China’s overall number two in 1998 under President Jiang Zemin, and almost by force of will — and intellect — ran the nation’s economy until 2003, after China had joined the World Trade Organization and established itself as one of the greatest economic comeback stories in recorded history.

For all this, Zhu remains one of the lesser-known Chinese leaders, even though he is widely viewed as the direct intellectual successor to the late Deng Xiaoping, who launched the changes that opened China to the world and paved the way to the market-like policies of the regime of Jiang and Zhu.

No Westerner has talked to Zhu at any length, and hope for that frank conversation fades with each year as this economic genius of China is well into his 80s.

But now, at least, we have a new book that properly puts Zhu into the pantheon of Chinese giants without foolishly canonizing him as some secular saint. The book is titled “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century,” and it is written by the eminent Orville Schell, who is legendarily a most careful and balanced American China analyst, and by the younger John Delury, who looks to be well on his way to becoming an invaluable China scholar.

Fifteen chapters form the book’s core, devoted to examining the views and impact of eleven indisputably major Chinese officials, writers, activists and leaders. Both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping get two chapters each, of course, and while all the chapters are outstanding, the best (I think) is on Zhu, because more than any other, this discussion helps us best understand the Chinese economy today.

Like his intellectual forefather Deng Xiaoping, Zhu was a real-world economic pragmatist, but only up to a point. Gleefully, he stole the best economic ideas from the West (“bourgeois capitalist technique”) he could find, once famously admitting that he might not have been able to clean up China’s deeply indebted state banks without the example of the successful U.S. solution to its 1980s saving and loan crisis.

In trying to grow the economy, he preferred moderation (once describing the 1992 growth figure of 12 percent as “crazy”); insisted on playing smart politics with China’s provinces while centralizing as many powers in Beijing as quietly and as quickly as possible; and believed that without an authoritarian political system, decisive economic policy-making for China would have been impossible. Progressive reform, as someone put it, should evolve “like a capitalist bird in a socialist cage.”

And so the Communist Party political core was left intact as the best and brightest were brought in to micro-manage the zooming economy.

When tension with the U.S. would surface, Zhu would argue man to man with President Jiang and anyone else who bothered to take him on that it was the economy that needed China’s energies, and so fist fights with others, especially the United States, should be avoided at almost all costs.

When in 1999 the U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bombers (allegedly mistakenly) fired missiles at the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (U.S. later blaming old maps), the Beijing elite went ballistic, though not Zhu.

We have a bigger fish to fry, he argued, and that’s to keep our economy moving forward without losing too much speed. For that, we need positive input from Washington, not diplomatic firefights.

The authors of this groundbreaking study conclude this way: “While Zhu was a man of enormous energy who understood that China’s successful development in the modern world depended on innovatively embracing major economic reforms, this did not preclude the protection of social organizations whose power base was independent of the party. He would not defend those who dared to question the core principles of the system.

In this sense, too, he was the loyal heir to Deng Xiaoping. But, thanks to Zhu’s hard-driving management of the economy, Deng’s blueprint for reform and opening up was given a second life after the disaster of 1989 [Tiananmen].

Zhu ensured that China would enter the 21st century poised to advance ever more rapidly toward the consummation of wealth, power and greatness to which it so devoutly aspired.”

For its chapter on Zhu, as well as on other historic figures, including contemporary dissidents, this is the best book on this important subject since Henry Kissinger’s 2011 classic “On China.”

Tom Plate is the author of the “Giants of Asia” series and of “In the Middle of the Future,” which will be published by Marshall Cavendish in October. He is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. © 2013 Pacific Perspectives Media Center