The deft handling of protesters in Shanghai by Zhu Rongji after the June 4 crackdown helped avert bloodshed and catapulted him into the central leadership.
Reading the conciliatory speeches that helped defuse a potentially explosive situation in his new book, one wonders with a sense of sadness what might have been if the central government under Deng Xiaoping had acted in a similarly skilful way towards the students and workers in Beijing. A national tragedy might have been averted and the rancour many Chinese, especially Hongkongers, feel about Beijing today might never have formed.
But, you might say, of course he would sing his own praises. In that case, I urge you to read a new book, Wealth and Power, by veteran China observer Orville Schell and academic John Delury. It contains a long chapter on Zhu's achievements, as Shanghai's boss and as premier in charge of China's economic transformation and entry into the World Trade Organisation. Certainly no Beijing apologists, the two American writers bear out Zhu's account.
"Shanghai's spring under [Zhu] played out very differently than the carnage unleashed in Beijing under Deng," the two wrote. "In Shanghai, the mass demonstrations reached their zenith on the evening of June 8 but then subsided without violence … after Zhu boldly appeared live on television to calm the situation."
Of course, the scale and intensity of the protests leading up to June 4 in Beijing were on a different order of magnitude. Some student leaders such as Chai Ling were intransigent and sometimes spoke as if they welcomed a bloody denouement. And, seeing the ruthless crackdown in Beijing, the demonstrators in Shanghai no doubt had second thoughts.
Zhu promised not to send in the army or punish protesters if they voluntarily disbanded. In the event, he deployed worker "volunteers" to patrol the streets, rather than public security officers.
In Red Capitalism, finance specialists Carl Walter and Fraser Howie described Zhu's reforms as economic tsar "transformative", especially when compared to the subsequent "wasted decade" under Wen Jiabao , and Hu Jintao . One only hopes officials of Zhu's calibre are in the current leadership.