Embarrassed premier upstaged on the air

John Kohut

PRIME Minister Mr Li Peng yesterday had the chance to let his personality shine across China and the world, but let it pass by.

In a rare press conference broadcast live on Chinese television and by CNN, Mr Li, just re-elected to a second five-year term of office, made an effort to exude confidence. And he did fairly well with questions on affairs of state.

But when it came to personal matters, Mr Li appeared uncomfortable, reacting with embarrassed laughter and evading questions.

In fact, he was clearly upstaged by Mr Zhu Rongji, one of the four vice-premiers who also appeared at the conference.

For example Mr Li, who likes to call himself a Marxist, was asked why he was a Marxist and what book by Karl Marx he had read most recently. The premier could not think of a single title.

''I'm both a Marxist and a believer in Mao Zedong thought,'' replied Mr Li.

''And now I am implementing the theory worked out by Mr Deng Xiaoping.'' Mr Li was also embarrassed by a question on whether he thought he would have been re-elected had there been more than one candidate for premier. And if he ever thought China would see the day when there was more than one candidate nominated for the position.

After laughing nervously, Mr Li delivered an answer which seemed to have been rehearsed in advance, but for a different question.

He thanked the National People's Congress delegates for their confidence in him, saying: ''Their confidence has enabled me to be re-elected.'' He promised to do all he could to perform what he called his lofty mission to make China prosperous.

He claimed the congress session which had just ended had been characterised by ''full democracy'', but failed to answer the journalist's question.

In contrast, Mr Zhu, responding to a question on agriculture, managed to show personal flair by making his audience laugh. He said he had never remarked, as reported by one Hongkong paper, that he would behead anyone who issued an IOU to a farmer.

''I don't recognise that as anything I have said, because if I really behead someone, that is a violation of human rights and is against the law,'' said Mr Zhu, who had been slouching in his chair before being handed the question on farming.

On other matters, including the economy and international relations, the premier responded much better. But in some cases at least, it appeared the questions from mainland journalists had been planted and the answers prepared well in advance.

On the political crisis in Russia, Mr Li repeated the Chinese government line that Beijing wanted to see its neighbour in a stable position and hoped to develop good relations with Moscow.

He also indicated China would not support attempts to bring international sanctions against North Korea for withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

To take the matter to the United Nations Security Council would ''not help a successful solution'', the premier said.

Mr Li claimed the Chinese economy could sustain eight to nine per cent annual economic growth, as targeted in the revised five-year plan, without incurring rampant inflation.

He said there were some problems which pointed in the direction of an overheated economy. But the Chinese leadership was sober-minded enough to deal with such difficulties, he said.