How Past Tries at Layoffs Fared

If history repeats itself, Premier Zhu Rongji will have a tough time paring down China's massive government.

Exactly one century ago, Chinese Emperor Guangxu proposed an eerily similar streamlining of the court bureaucracy in order to modernize the economy. Conservatives who opposed the plan ousted the emperor in a coup. Guangxu was placed in detention and his liberal advisers were executed.

During the 1949 Communist revolution, Confucian bureaucrats in charge of regulating everything from morality to taxes were replaced by Communist Party apparachiks who strengthened their stranglehold over society. They dictated everything citizens could do, including what books they could read. The system seemed to breed bureaucrats.

A decade ago, liberal-minded Premier Zhao Ziyang vowed to weaken the state's overwhelming control over the economy and Chinese society by shrinking the size of the government. That drive was just one of his reforms that triggered a backlash from party conservatives. Mr. Zhao, like Guangxu before him, ended his political career under house arrest in Beijing.

But there are two trends in the current premier's favor that could help him succeed where his predecessors failed. "Conservatives who oppose government reform are becoming weaker and weaker," says a former adviser to Zhao. "And now there is overwhelming public support for government downsizing."

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