Zhu Rongji in 2001

Zhu Rongji was the second most powerful man in China in the Jiang era. Viewed by many as more able than Jiang, he was smart, decisive, tough, humorous, blunt, short-tempered, and quick on his feet, uncompromising and incorruptible and beyond reproach. Video tapes of his press conferences became a best seller but his frankness and uncompromising style made many enemies, especially among hard liners.

Zhu was very intelligent, had a photographic memory, and was disgusted by corruption. He had little tolerance for people who he felt didn’t do their jobs and was notorious for upbraiding underlings who he thought screwed up. People who worked under him simply called him "boss." According to one story he scolded Li Peng so intensely for knowing nothing about economics, Li suffered a heart attack.

Zhu Rongji (pronounced Joo Rong-JI) was born in Changsa, Hunan on October 1, 1928. His family were rich land owners. Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, was one of his ancestors. His father died before he was born and his mother died when he was nine. Zhu received a degree in electrical engineering in 1949 from Beijing's Qinghua University, the M.I.T. of China, where he was chairman of the student union. He majored in electric engineering Zhu and his wife, Lao An, have two daughters. Little is know about his family. Like Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji was plucked from relative obscurity by Deng after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Deng hoped a clearer succession plan would add stability to the system.

Zhu Rongji's Political Career

Zhu in 1986

Zhu joined the Communist Party in 1949 and worked as an industrial planner in the State Planning Commission. In 1957, during the Hundred Flowers movement, he made a speech criticizing China's economic policies and praising pragmatic economic reforms. He was purged and was forced to tend livestock in the northeast and do low-level teaching at technical schools.

Zhu was rehabilitated by Deng in 1982 after 20 years in political oblivion, and put on the fact track. Under Deng, Zhu was brought back as an economic planner and rose quickly through the ranks. Zhu taught economics at his alma matter Qinghua University, became dean of the school’s business school and established links with it and M.I.T.

In 1987, Zhu was named deputy Communist party chief. In 1988, he was named the mayor of Shanghai and worked under Jiang, the city’s party chief. Zhu made a name for himself leading a successful ant-corruption drive, attracting foreign investors, triggered a boom that continues today, and diffusing demonstrations during the Tiananmen Square crisis by appearing on television and making a direct appeal for calm.

When Zhu was mayor of Shanghai He was nicknamed Mr. One Chop because of efforts to reduce the number of chops or signatures on permits and bureaucratic documents. His reputaion for propeiety was unblemished, Once a relative asked him to bend the rules to get him a Shanghai residency permit. Zhu replied, "What I can do, I have done already. What I cannot do, I will never do."

Zhu Becomes Prime Minister

In 1991, Deng moved Zhu to Beijing and made him deputy Prime Minister. In 1992, he made a "triple jump" from the 300-member Central Committee past the 20-member Politburo to the 7-member Standing Committee, where he served as a top economic policy maker.

As Deng's economic czar, Zhu drew many admirers as he tamed inflation without snuffling out growth by devaluing the yuan in 1994 by 33 percent. He also laid the foundation for a banking system and and was named been as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for economics.

In 1997, Zhu was named Primer Minister of China. Sometimes called Zhi Fengzi ("Madman Zhu") for his swashbuckling style, he attacked reform; went after corrupt officials; insisted that smugglers be shot and poured over 16,000 letters a year with grievance from ordinary citizens. Zhu didn’t have any patrons. There was some tension between him and Jiang.

Zhu is regarded as the architect of the economic policies that ushered in China’s second wave of growth. He broke down trade barriers, cut runaway inflation, rescued China from the Asian economic crisis in 1997, sold off state enterprises, broke up monopolies, ended state planning, introduced competition and deregulation,. streamlined the bureaucracy and secured China’s membership to the World Trade Organization.

Zhu's tough minded policies included driving the military out of many of its commercial enterprises, reducing the number of easy loans and credits to money-losing state-owned enterprises, introducing a value added tax and diverting tax revenues to the central government. To create jobs he launched Keynesian public works programs.

See Economic History

When asked how he wanted to be remembered Zhuo Rongji said “as an incorruptible official.”

Zhu Rongji Still Influential in the 2010s

In August 2013, Liu Sha wrote in the Global Times, “Nationwide attention has been focused on the new book by outspoken former premier Zhu Rongji, which analysts see as a prelude to a new round of discussions over reforms ahead of the third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Zhu's sixth book consists of 106 speeches, talks, correspondence and notes, as well as 83 photos, from his tenure as the mayor of Shanghai and the municipality's Party chief from 1987 to 1991. [Source: Liu Sha, Global Times, August 13, 2013]

The speeches reveal many decision-making processes and a local government's determination to push forward economic and political reforms, which are currently needed, said Tian Yun, editor-in-chief of the China Macroeconomic Information Network under the National Development and Reform Commission. "The book's glamor lies in the fact that it is about a reformer's experience," Tian told the Global Times, adding that public anticipation for a clearer map of reform would intensify before the third plenary session, as the first two sessions dealt more with the general direction of the country's social development under the new leadership.

Zhu, vice premier from 1991 to 1998 and premier till his retirement in 2003, pushed massive financial reforms by encouraging State-owned enterprises to enter the private sector. Tian said the recent economic slowdown has triggered worries and many have started to compare current problems to those in the 1990s. Huang Shuyuan, head of the People's Publishing House, which published the book, said the contents were not intentionally selected. "Zhu made those speeches when Shanghai was experiencing a hard time dealing with declining fiscal incomes and serious housing problems."

Zhu started by building a corruption-free government, while many officials in vested interest groups nowadays do not have the motivation or courage to reform, said Huang Weiping, a politics professor from Shenzhen University, adding that Zhu set a good example. Many excerpts from the book have been discussed by Net users. Zhu said, "we must reform or we'll be finished" in a speech after seeing the complicated administrative procedure that a foreign investor had to go through in Shanghai back then.

Huang Weiping said many problems mentioned in the book have been solved, but we could still refer to them when grappling with difficulties like the widening wealth gap and corruption. The book is also a good reference for the ongoing "mass line" campaign, through which the Party aims to consolidate its ruling status against the backdrop of a more diversified society and growing citizen awareness, Huang Shuyuan said. Zhu's previous books saw more than 6 million copies sold, while publishers estimate that the latest one will surpass 1 million. All royalties will be donated to institutions as requested by Zhu.

Li Peng

Li Peng

Li Peng (1928-2019) was China's premier from 1987 to 1998. Known as "the Butcher of Beijing" for his role in the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Li is the one Chinese leader associated most with the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 after Deng. He supported the order to declare martial law and has consistently defended the government's position. It is widely believed that he was one leading voices advocating that troops open fire on Tiananmen Square. Li Peng was the second most powerful man in China under Deng and Jiang and for a while was considered as a possible successor to Deng. Li was a protegee of Zhou Enlai. He was portrayed as "wheedling, whining, gleefully backstabbing peers." A poet slipped in a verse in the People's Daily that read: "Down with Li Peng, End people's rage." Peng was also a driving force behind the Three Gorges Dam project.

Erik Eckholm and Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times: “Born to Communist revolutionaries in the early years of the Chinese civil war and educated as a hydroelectric engineer in the Soviet Union, Mr. Li rose to the top ranks of the Communist Party, serving as a bridge between the old guard of revolutionaries and the more technocratic leaders who succeeded them. He served 10 years as prime minister and then five years, until his retirement in 2003, as chief of the National People’s Congress, the country’s party-dominated, rubber-stamp Parliament. [Source: Erik Eckholm and Chris Buckley, New York Times, July 23, 2019]

“Mr. Li was never widely loved by the Chinese public and was a wooden presence on television, but he wielded great power late in his career as a top-ranking member of the secretive Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s leading center of power. That he survived at such a rarefied level suggested that he was more politically adroit than his stodgy public image indicated. Mr. Li was known among the top leaders of the 1980s and ’90s as a conservative on economic issues, urging caution in the dismantling of state industries and the introduction of free markets. Like many Chinese Communist leaders of his era, he revealed little of himself, usually reading from turgid official scripts in public. If there is a single colorful quotation to his name, it has not been found.

“When Mr. Li was selected to a second term as prime minister in 1993, Xinhua sought to lighten his image, to wide derision. “People familiar with him say Li is kind, amiable, easy of approach and good at making friends,” the news agency reported. His wife, Zhu Lin, was quoted as saying, “Li Peng never behaves like a domineering husband, and he always helps me do housework when he is free.” The article did not mention the luxury quarters and household servants they enjoyed in Beijing’s inner sanctum. She and Mr. Li had two sons and a daughter. Zhu Lin became a successful businesswoman, and two of the children have run state power monopolies. Another son joined the military and later — if reports in overseas Chinese media outlets are to be believed — lived abroad.

“One of Mr. Li’s signal legacies may be the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which he promoted as premier. The project caused wide concern in China and abroad about potential environmental consequences — like earthquakes and landslides — and the human cost of relocating the more than 1.3 million people displaced by the rising waters behind the dam that inundated dozens of towns and cities. “Without Li Peng’s advocacy, the Three Gorges Dam might never have been built,” said Li Cheng, an expert on Chinese leadership at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

As of 2012 Li was the vice-governor of Shanxi and still wielded power behind the scenes. Isaac Stone Fish wrote in Foreign Policy: He is not officially a princeling, but he is the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, China's premier under Mao, a connection that helped him climb the ranks. Li managed the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, and two of his children inherited his love for power -- the electric kind. His daughter Li Xiaolin is the CEO of China Power International Development, which had revenues of $2.2 billion in 2010, and his son, currently vice-governor of Shanxi, one of China's major coal producing provinces, was formerly CEO of China Huaneng Group, one of the largest Chinese power generators. [Source: Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy, May 30, 2012]

Li Peng’s Life and Career

Erik Eckholm and Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times: “Li Peng was born on Oct. 20, 1928, in Shanghai to Communist parents. His father, Li Shuoxun, was executed by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in 1931 after he was captured on the southern island of Hainan, where he had been helping to organize Communist forces. Li Shuoxun became an early martyr of the revolution. The rising Communist leader Zhou Enlai and his wife, Deng Yingchao, met young Li Peng and took him under their wing, as they did dozens of others. The boy was sent to study in the Communist redoubt of Yan’an, in central China.[Source: Erik Eckholm and Chris Buckley, New York Times, July 23, 2019]

“In 1948, the party sent him to study at the Moscow Power Institute, where he became a leader of Chinese students in the Soviet Union. He remained in that country through the Communist victory in 1949 and Zhou’s appointment as prime minister of the new People’s Republic. Mr. Li did not return to China until 1955, when he started his career managing hydroelectric plants. In 1966, as the tumultuous Cultural Revolution began, he was transferred to Beijing, where he served as a manager and party secretary of the Municipal Power Supply Bureau. Despite his higher education and close ties to the Soviet Union, which by then was China’s archenemy, Mr. Li seems to have survived the decade of Mao’s Cultural Revolution without being persecuted or sent to the countryside to be re-educated, as many intellectuals were. Many attribute his good fortune in those years to the patronage of Zhou, whose wife had helped look after the young Mr. Li when he was growing up in Yan’an. In his official memoir, Mr. Li refers to her as “Mama Deng.”

“His rise after Mao’s death in 1976 was rapid. Mr. Li became national minister of power industries in 1981, was appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1982 and then in 1985 joined the Politburo, a council of high officials. His increasingly trusted status was affirmed that year when, with enmities between the Chinese and the Soviets easing, he represented China at the funeral of the Soviet leader Konstantin U. Chernenko. Mr. Li was the first senior Chinese official to meet the new Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“In 1987, Zhao Ziyang was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party, the country’s most powerful official position. Mr. Li was appointed acting prime minister and named to the five-man standing committee of the Politburo, setting the stage for the clash of wills and beliefs that would result in Mr. Zhao’s downfall amid the upheaval in the spring of 1989. With his unwavering prosecution of the crackdown that had been sought by Deng and other elders, Mr. Li might well have assumed that he would be given the top job of party general secretary. But Deng, who had shrewdly pulled strings in secret, apparently concluded that Mr. Li was too unpopular at home and abroad to help the country recover from Tiananmen Square. He also may have suspected that Mr. Li would be too slow to unleash the economy.

“Instead, Deng arranged for Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai party chief, who had managed to disperse student demonstrators with little violence, to take the job as general secretary. But even if slighted, Mr. Li remained prime minister and the second-most-powerful official in the Communist Party, a conservative balancing figure within a leadership eager to project unity. “Li Peng was the fall guy for Tiananmen, and that’s why he didn’t get the general secretary job,” Rod MacFarquhar, an expert on Chinese politics at Harvard, had said of Mr. Li. (Mr. MacFarquhar died in February.)

Li Peng and Tiananmen Square

Erik Eckholm and Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Li is most widely remembered as the forbidding official in a Mao suit who appeared on television in May 1989 to announce the imposition of martial law in urban Beijing and to denounce leaders of the giant pro-democracy protests that had occupied Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city. They were enemies of the Communist Party, he declared, who imperiled “the fate and future of the People’s Republic of China, built by many revolutionary martyrs with their blood.” [Source: Erik Eckholm and Chris Buckley, New York Times, July 23, 2019]

“Historians have debated how much personal responsibility Mr. Li bore for the army’s assault on students and workers beginning late on June 3, 1989, when tanks and troops with automatic rifles opened fire, killing hundreds if not more as they plowed toward Tiananmen Square. The troops took the square early on June 4. Scholars have also debated Mr. Li’s role in the removal and permanent house arrest that spring of his more liberal rival, Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party general secretary, who was nominally of a higher rank. Mr. Zhao had advocated negotiating with the students and opposed using the army against them. Mr. Zhao died in 2005. Ever since 1989, critics had called for Mr. Li to face trial or a public reckoning for his role in the bloodshed. But 30 years after the Tiananmen crackdown, the Communist Party shows no sign of disavowing the decision to use armed force.

“Mr. Li would later protest — accurately, in the view of most experts — that the momentous decision to send in troops in 1989 could have been made only by Deng Xiaoping , the elderly behind-the-scenes leader and military chairman who had set China on its post-Mao path of increasing economic freedom while keeping a tight grip on political power. “True, he got the support of Deng Xiaoping for the armed suppression, but Li Peng was one of the most active of the suppressors,” said Sidney Rittenberg, who was the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party and who met Mr. Li.

“Mr. Li presented his own version of events leading up the crackdown in a diarylike account that was circulated among the party’s elite and acquired by a Hong Kong publisher in 2010. In it, Mr. Li defended his conduct, describing himself as a responsible and sober-minded servant of the party and presenting Deng as the dominating force who had made a knowing decision to use armed force against the protesters. Mr. Li recalled how he and other officials had monitored troops as they advanced toward Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3 and the early hours of June 4. “At about half past 5 in the morning, the remaining 2,000 students and core elements behind the turmoil left through the southeast corner of the square,” he wrote. “Nobody died during the evacuation of Tiananmen Square. Thus, the cancer of the illegal occupation of Tiananmen Square was fully removed. I notified the Xinhua News Agency to report this to the country and the whole world.”

Image Sources: 1) Landsberger Posters;, AP, BBC, Nolls China website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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