Zhu Rongji

Facing realities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 September, 1997, 12:00am


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Now that the initial euphoria has subsided, attention is starting to focus on the very real practical difficulties Beijing will face in implementing its proposed restructuring of state-owned enterprises. Premier Li Peng yesterday warned of the need 'to choose a development road suited to one's own national conditions'. Perhaps he was thinking of the numerous mass privatisation efforts which degenerated into garbage sales in the former Soviet Union. These show the dangers of blindly following any foreign models over an issue that will affect the livelihood of tens of millions of Chinese workers.

Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji struck a cautious tone in his much-acclaimed address to a World Bank-IMF seminar, repeatedly declining to specify what precise form Beijing will adopt for its mass sell-off.

As the leader responsible for implementing this policy, and whose currently glittering career may depend on its success, he is best placed to appreciate the immense practical difficulties which lie ahead.

Hence Mr Zhu's emphasis on the other reforms that must proceed in tandem with the restructuring. He cited the importance of improving China's fledgling social security system, an essential precursor to any sell-off, since state-owned enterprises now provide health and welfare services for hundreds of millions of workers and their dependents.

Even more important was the vice-premier's emphasis on reform of the financial system. Without the overhaul of China's banking sector that now seems to be on the cards many financial institutions will remain crippled by the bad debts of state-owned enterprises, making it impossible to build a modern banking system and negating much of the purpose behind these sell-offs.

It is easy to get carried away by the money-making opportunities presented by potentially the world's biggest privatisation exercise. But such an attitude, if unchecked, can easily lead to corruption, theft of state assets, and unnecessary bankruptcies and redundancies, culminating in labour discontent.

While recognising the necessity for restructuring, Chinese leaders are right to be cautious about the details of its implementation. Better still, by giving such an impressive performance during his seminar talk, Mr Zhu has enhanced international confidence in his ability to manage the mainland economy. That should be useful during the difficult phases of the restructuring exercise which lie ahead.




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