Zhu Rongji

Rejuvenated China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 March, 1998, 12:00am


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Only a few years ago it would have been inconceivable for Qian Qichen to declare he was too old to continue as Foreign Minister. But times have changed in China. While Mr Qian looks younger than his 69 years and has worked wonders in rebuilding Beijing's international image, even he can not escape the rejuvenation process the mainland leadership is undergoing.

Retirement ages are finally being enforced at all but the highest levels. Even senior figures can no longer count on being immune, as former National People's Congress Chairman Qiao Shi discovered when his 73 years was used as an excuse to push him into retirement. In their place are coming a new generation of younger technocrats, led by Premier Zhu Rongji.

While they are more liberal than their elderly predecessors, the change of guard is unlikely to accelerate political reform. Mr Zhu is far more interested in economics, while Vice-President Hu Jintao, at 55 the youngest person to hold this post, made his mark by leading a crackdown against Tibetan separatists.

But it does help ensure the leadership begins to mirror the changes taking place in Chinese society. The mainland is moving towards an era where bureaucrats will have to justify their jobs or lose them, as part of Mr Zhu's ruthless drive towards efficiency. Gone are the days when high-ranking officials could expect to walk into jobs for which they were not qualified.

Party members now take a dim view of such behaviour, as illustrated by yesterday's low vote for Chief Prosecutor Han Zhubin, whose industrial background led many to doubt his suitability for the post. While the NPC remains unlikely to reject any nominee, the size of its endorsement has become important in a more open era, as shown by Chairman Li Peng's intensive lobbying to ensure his own vote did not fall too low.

The rejuvenation of the Chinese leadership is good for both the nation and the world. It has strengthened international ties, with an improvement in Sino-US relations already visible. And it has produced a leadership more in tune with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people and the increasingly free-market nature of the nation's economy.