BEIJING -- China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, not seen in public for half a year and rumored to have been ill, turned up on the television news last night -- the same day that a major Communist Party economic planning meeting is believed to have begun.
The brief TV clip of Mr. Deng, 86, casting his vote in local elections probably was aimed at squashing months of rumors that he was so ill he had to be hospitalized.
Mr. Deng's TV appearance came as top Chinese Communist Party leaders were believed to have begun here a plenum long-delayed by wrangling over the future course of China's economy -- wrangling between relatively hard-line socialists in the central leadership and more independent, reform-minded provincial leaders.
Mr. Deng, though retired from his last official post since March, still is believed to wield considerable influence -- perhaps enough to arbitrate the plenum's outcome. Lately, he is said to have been fending off attempts by conservative socialists to undo or slow the pace of many of the economic reforms he launched more than a decade ago.
"They probably trucked him out to let everyone know that he's alive and still capable of making decisions," a Western diplomat said. "It may be a signal from those relying on him for support in the plenum that he is still at least physically capable of being a factor."
The last public sighting of Mr. Deng was in early July, when he spent a half-day touring a Beijing hotel and the Asian Games Village then under construction. His last confirmed public visitor was former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, also in July.
Recently, Chinese news media have carried several reports stressing not only Mr. Deng's good health but also his avid interest in various activities, such as swimming, walking and playing bridge -- reports apparently aimed at casting him in a robust image.
Though last night's TV news showed him being guided toward the ballot box, China's news agency took a similar tack in describing Mr. Deng as "braving a chilly winter wind" while "vigorously" walking toward the polling site in Zhongnanhai, the closed-off headquarters of the party and the central government. Foreign reporters were not invited to observe him in person.
Officially, Mr. Deng has kept in the background because he does not want to dim the limelight of his anointed successor, Jiang Zemin, who was appointed party chief immediately after the brutal military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989.
However, many analysts think that Mr. Deng's death would accelerate a top-level power struggle in which Mr. Jiang probably would be a loser. That power struggle, in some ways, already has taken expression in the in-fighting over China's next five-year economic plan that delayed holding the party plenum several times this fall.
In the course of unsuccessfully attempting to draft the new five-year plan, provincial leaders bucked central government planners on several key issues, such as how much tax revenue they will be required to remit to Beijing.