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Zhu Rongji's Year of Living Dangerously
Although he thrives in times of crisis, China's no-nonsense Premier faces two of his toughest challenges: keeping the economy afloat and mending ties with the U.S.

Illustration for TIME by Mark Hess

Life looks different down the barrel of a gun--more focused, urgent. Zhu Rongji seems to like it that way, relishing the edge it gives him. China's Premier is a risk-taker, a breed apart in the Chinese leadership. In Beijing they sometimes call him Zhu Fengzi, Madman Zhu, as he crashes through the rickety communist superstructure in the name of reform, laying off millions of workers at state-owned enterprises, terrorizing corrupt officials, having smugglers shot. On a good day they call him Zhu Laoban, Zhu the Boss, the only man capable of imposing order on an economy of 1.3 billion money-hungry people snarled in one of the greatest economic traffic jams the world has ever seen.

Discipline has always been Zhu's touchstone, from his early days as a lowly planning official to his current post as China's fiscal field marshal. When he was mayor of Shanghai in 1988, two relatives asked him over dinner to bend strict residency laws so they could come to live in the city. Zhu turned them down, according to another family member present, saying: "What I can do, I have done already. What I cannot do, I will never do."

The moment the mad boss steps off his Air China jet in Los Angeles this week on the first stage of his U.S. visit, he knows he will be in the crosshairs. Many Americans, fed up with allegations of nuclear espionage and China's dismal human rights record, are sure to take it out on the visitor from Beijing. He's looking forward to it. "Let them vent their anger," Zhu told a press conference last month. "I will go to tell the truth."

The truth is not pretty: a Chinese crackdown on domestic dissent harsher than anything since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, allegations of a concerted campaign of nuclear espionage in U.S. labs, a trade surplus with America that Washington calculates at $57 billion--second only to Japan's, a brewing showdown over U.S. plans to provide Taiwan with a defense system against China's ballistic missile buildup. Relations between Washington and Beijing are frostier than they have been for years, as the old epithet "red" creeps back into America's discourse on China. Some Congressmen are even talking as if China has become the new cold war enemy.

Having reached the age of 70, Zhu should be resting on his achievements, letting others take the hits. But if anything he is wading in deeper, taking on the weight of a troubled bilateral relationship just as China's own economy is teetering on the edge of breakdown. His reasoning is simple: if he doesn't do it, nobody will. And time is short. "Black hairs have already turned to gray," he said last month, expressing his frustration at the slow pace of negotiations with the U.S. over China's long-delayed entry into the World Trade Organization. But he could have been referring to his own life story, an ever more difficult struggle against the forces of disintegration, anarchy and corruption that could yet rip China apart. He has four years left as Premier, and so much still to do.

Tall and sharp with the features of a falcon, Zhu dominates meetings with his quick mind. His IQ "must be 200," deputy U.S. Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers once said. He has a Rolodex memory, endless energy and overpowering impatience. "Zhu is a verb, an active verb," says Wu Qing, professor of American studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He is not a man that one likes, but "a man that one respects," says Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Above all, Zhu is a man in a hurry, with a mission to make up for lost time, both for himself and for China.

PAGE 1  |  2  |  3


April 12, 1999

Difficult Mission
When Zhu Rongji arrives in the United States, he will have to traverse the minefield that Sino-U.S. relations have become

Two-Way Street
Beijing is getting fed up with U.S. carping

Line of Fire
Beijing would do well to admit its wrongs

China Button

This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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