Amid sad memories, tragic end predicted for honest man Zhu
It is late evening in a Beijing theme restaurant devoted to the Cultural Revolution and the forced exodus of millions of urban people to the countryside - a place that evokes melancholy and bitter memories.
The restaurant serves wild leaves, tree slugs and tasteless flour buns, the food of the exiles, and is covered with Maoist slogans of the period that are laughable but for the fact that it was in their name that millions had their education and their youth stolen.
This sadness fits the mood of my two companions, a private businessman and a professor, as they consider the future of Zhu Rongji, whose promotion as Premier they greeted with such enthusiasm just 20 months ago.
'He will have a tragic end,' said the businessman.
'No, not resignation but something worse than that. I do not want to say it. Did he not predict it himself - he has prepared 100 coffins, 99 for the corrupt officials he wants to execute and one for himself.
'He is out of his depth, an honest man surrounded by political opportunists. He is no politician, he does not have their ability to make alliances and double-talk. In a crisis, who will support him?' According to the Beijing rumour mill, Mr Zhu has, this year, offered his resignation to President Jiang Zemin once or twice, saying he had made mistakes for which he felt responsible and that he had lost the support of people he needed to finish the tasks he had set himself.
The rumour goes that Mr Jiang was delighted with the offer, which he saw as a sign of Mr Zhu's weakness, but refused to accept the resignation because he still needed Mr Zhu's brains, honesty and competence.
The professor said: 'Zhu has been made weak and ineffective by our political system, his own character and the war in Yugoslavia and the bombing of our embassy, which changed the climate within the Communist Party and caused him to be accused of being a second Li Hongzhang.' Li was one of the most powerful officials of the last three decades of the Qing dynasty that ended in 1911 and made enormous concessions - due to the state's military and industrial weakness - to imperialist foreign powers.
Mr Zhu's opponents accuse him of imitating Li by giving too much away in negotiations with United States President Bill Clinton over China's application to join the World Trade Organisation in the spring and by being too popular with the Americans during a visit to the US in April.
'His own personality is to blame,' said the professor.
'When he goes on visits outside Beijing, he is too direct and diligent, demanding facts and real information and punishment for officials who have taken bribes or made mistakes. When Jiang goes, he puts his hands on his big belly, mutters a few slogans, smiles and comes home. Which of the two is more popular? 'But, if leaders did not do as Zhu does, can our country ever change and become a modern state? If not, can this system be saved from collapse?' The waitress arrives with cups of a powerful rice liquor popular in the far northeast, where many of the students of Beijing were exiled during the 1960s and 1970s.
The businessman considers Zhu's future.
'He is not a strong man. He is underweight and is said to have a heart problem. Maybe the finale will come in a battle over the power sector, the bastion of his predecessor Li Peng [now National People's Congress chairman].' Mr Zhu has publicly criticised the low quality of building and misuse of migration funds for the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze, Mr Li Peng's single biggest legacy, that is costing the state more than US$25 billion (HK$195 billion). Mr Li Peng's children hold senior positions in power companies.
'We do not know what Zhu is saying in private about the Three Gorges or other giant power projects approved during Li's 10 years in power,' the businessman said.
'But how could a man like him condone the waste, over-spending and corruption involved? 'So what if it comes to a showdown between the two men? Which of the two is the son of a Communist martyr, has years in the party and built his connections over a lifetime? Which is the outsider, the honest man, popular among the public but not in the apparatus?'