Zhao: a firm handshake -- but lighter grip on China's economy

His name is ZHao Ziyang, and he is reputed to have the firmest handshake in Peking. HE also raises tropical fish. These are among the scanty details known about the man who last week became the third premier of the People's Republic of China, following in the footsteps of Chou-En-lai and Hua Guofeng.

The official news media are trying to make up for the relative lack of international exposure Mr. Zhao has had till now by picturing him almost everyday in his prime ministerial capacity -- meeting a Japanese economic delegation, receving New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, hosting a banquet for Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

"Peace cannot be won by begging and war cannot be prevented by making concessions," he said Sept. 14 in his toast to Mr. Moi.

He was referring, of course, to China's bete noire -- Soviet "hegemonism" -- as exemplified by the invasion of Afghanistan. Pronouncements on such international topics are a new role for Mr. Zhao, whose major achievements until now have been in the domestic economic field -- a field to which he continues to accord the highest priority

He told the leaderof high-powered Japanese economic delegation, for instance, that China's economic reforms were designed to give enterprises more decisionmaking power. A New China News Agency report said Mr. Zhao pointed out two drawbacks in China's present economic system.

"One is over-concentration of decisionmaking power, which makes leaders of enterprises powerless. The other is that no clear distinction is made between the government and enterprises.

"Instead of exercising leadership over enterprises through economic planning, legislation, and other economic means, government institutions have directly intervened in the internal affairs of the enterprises, thus putting hundreds of thousands of enterprises in a passive position."

The reforms Mr. Zhao tried out when he was Communist Party and government leader in populous Sichuan Province, and which now are to be extended to factories nationwide, and which now are to be extended to factories nationwide, give individual enterprises wide decisionmaking power and allow them to retain earned profits. The enterprises will have to take responsibility for their own losses and failures.

Political and economic reform are equally necessary, Mr. Zhao also has said. Over-concentration of power and lifelong tenure for cadres was the bane of China.

"A very precise man," said Mr. Muldoon of Mr. Zhao. "He said precisely what he wanted to say without embellishment."

Zhao Ziyang (pronounced jow to rhyme with how) was born in 1919, the son of a landlord family in Henan Province in north China. He worked for many years in Guangdong Province as the subordinate of Tao Chu, a veteran communist who was purged and died during the 10-year turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution ( 1966-1976).

Mr. Zhao eulogized his former leader: "One of his important features was that he was sharp, pungent, and vigorous, never discussed a problem in vague terms but said yes for yeas and no forno and dared to air his views."

Mr. Zhao has a similar reputation. He, too, suffered during the Cultural Revolution when he lost the party and government leadership of Guangdong. But in 1972 he was given a job in Inner Mongolia, returning to Guangdong the following year. He was transferred to Sichuan in 1975.

Sichuan, home of China's de facto strong man Deng Xiaoping, was where Mr. Zhao made his mark, transforming what had been dubbed a "kingdom of hell" into the "kingdom of heaven" it had been before the anarchy and civil war of the Cultural Revolution.

Socialism, he said in a much-quoted speech, meant two things: public ownership of means of production and paying each according to his work. As long as those two principles were safeguarded, people should feel free to adopt "all those structures, systems, policies, and measures which can promote the development of production, and not bind ourselves as silkworms do within cocoons."

Mr. Zhao denies that the policies he is trying to apply nationwide constitute a return to capitalism.

He is a pragmatist, however, like his mentor Mr. Deng, and he seems willing to stretch his own definition of socialism pretty far if by so doing he can be assured of success in achieving the goal he (and Deng) have set for china: economic modernization within this century.

Although close to Deng, Mr. Zhao was forced on one occasion to dissociate himself totally from him. On April 8, 1976, after Deng had been purged for the second time following the Tian An Men riots April 5, Mr. Zhao was quoted by the New China News Agency as having called on communist and the Army to "thoroughly expose and repudiate the Deng Xiaoping crimes of trying to subvert the dictatorship of the proletariat and restore capitalism."

Most party leaders in other provinces were forced to say much the same sort of thing.

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