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Outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Gets Mixed Evaluation - 2003-03-14

China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji leaves office soon, during the final days of the annual session of the National People's Congress. In his five years as Prime Minister, Mr. Zhu tackled the country's bloated bureaucracy, trying to streamline state firms and clean up bad loans.

When Zhu Rongji became prime minister in 1998, he asked for 100 coffins - 99 for enemies of reform and one for himself, in case he failed and his enemies retaliated.

When the tough and polished Mr. Zhu was charged with curbing runaway inflation in the mid 1990s, he instituted such harsh austerity measures that China watchers say rumors about an assassination attempt on him and his family were believable.

Mr. Zhu's serious demeanor and his critical, no-nonsense, hands on approach to economic management have won him fans, and foes, both at home and overseas. He was known as China's "cleanest" official, amid the country's rampant corruption.

Zhu Rongji came into office promising to restructure unprofitable state-owned enterprises and state banks, achieve stable economic growth and cut China's bureaucracy in half.

Soon after taking over the premiership from Li Peng in 1998, Mr. Zhu helped maneuver China through the Asian financial crisis. Unlike other Asian countries, he did it without devaluing China's currency.

He fired millions of civil servants, reduced bad bank debt, found new capital for telecommunications and oil companies and promoted the burgeoning private sector.

Hailed as an economics wizard by many analysts, Zhu Rongji fought to bring China into the World Trade Organization.

Jonathan Anderson, executive director for Asia Pacific at Goldman Sachs, says that China will not have another leader like Mr. Zhu. He says China may not need one because most of his reforms are now part of China's economic framework and will continue without him.

"China's gone through a very rough transition, lots of issues," he said. "You have needed leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhu Rongji. You know - people to take decisions and get things done."

Not all commentators are full of praise.

Many economists say bad loans make up as much as 50 percent of all loans held by state-run banks. They also say the social security system, one of Mr. Zhu's projects, is plagued by corruption.

Wu Guoguang, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says reform has not gone nearly far enough to turn lumbering and inefficient state-owned enterprises into profitable organizations.

Mr. Wu says Zhu Rongji has not really made any breakthroughs apart from joining the WTO, and though he tried, he did not achieve much in carrying out reforms, notably with state-owned enterprises.

Some of Mr. Zhu's biggest fans are foreign business leaders in China and abroad. They praise Mr. Zhu for helping create respect for China as a place to do business.