The Second Coming of Zhu Rongji?

Despite the apparent parallels between the challenges facing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his predecessor Zhu Rongji, the differences between them are greater. Whereas Zhu had to centralize power in order to stabilize the economy in the 1990's, today Li must pursue decentralization to foster technological and industrial upgrading.

SHANGHAI – The recent release of a book of speeches by former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji has refocused attention on his bold – and often highly controversial – economic reforms of the 1990’s, which included reining in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and overhauling the banking system. But the discussion has taken an unexpected turn, with Chinese media adopting a far less critical stance than that which has prevailed for the last two decades.

Given the apparent parallels between the challenges that Zhu faced and those that current Premier Li Keqiang is now attempting to address, not to mention their shared commitment to economic transformation, this shift could signify rising support for structural reform. But are Zhu and Li really so much alike?

Today, as in the 1990’s, China is experiencing skyrocketing local-government and commercial-bank debt, rising fiscal and financial risk, uncertainty over institutional reform, and declining central-government revenue. According to Bloomberg, Li will be the first Chinese premier not to fulfill the official annual growth target since Zhu. Despite these apparent similarities, however, China’s situation today is fundamentally different from 20 years ago.

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