Media Polish Image of 'Most Hated Man in China'

April 14, 1991|By ROBERT BENJAMIN

BEIJING — Beijing.-- According to his wife, the premier of the People's Republic of China is "a model husband" who never evidences male chauvinism and never hesitates to help with household chores, even personally arranging their bedroom furniture in "impeccable order."

No matter how long his work day and how heavy his burdens, he always takes time to personally answer some of the scores of complaint letters received each day by his office from ordinary citizens.

Whenever there is a big disaster in any corner of China, he immediately journeys there, taking great risks to oversee the rescue efforts and express his special concern for the welfare of the elderly and small children.

All this -- says a recent issue of the big, glossy magazine China's Talents -- is what makes Li Peng tick.

Replete with color photographs showing Mr. Li's "infinitely joyful" home life, his earnest working style and even his attempts at playing tennis, the lavish spread in the state-run magazine is just one product of what appears to be an unusual, Western-style media campaign to humanize the image of the man still popularly known here as the most hated person in China.

Mr. Li earned that nasty sobriquet for his undeniable leading role in the lethal military crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square less than two years ago.

Whether or not the public relations campaign can reshape the premier's negative public persona, it underscores the suprising development that Mr. Li not only has survived the Tiananmen debacle, he at times has appeared to be thriving.

The isolation of China's leaders makes predicting shifts within their stitched-together coalition a dicey exercise at best, but Mr. Li now appears primed to vie for even greater power upon the death of 86-year-old paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

However, other factions within China's leadership may yet band together in any number of internal alliances to sink Mr. Li's political future by smearing him, as one Asian ambassador here put it, "with the paint of Tiananmen Square."

And new potential challengers are rising to the political forefront here. For example, both Zhu Rongji, Shanghai's dynamic mayor, and Zou Jiahua, head of state planning, were elevated to vice premierships last week -- and both are foreseen as possible replacements for Mr. Li if he should be toppled.

So it is a sign of the premier's increased strength and of his lasting weakness that readers of Chinese publications have been treated in recent months to an onslaught of insights into the supposedily beneficent side of the man who has held the leading position in the Chinese government's top executive body, the State Council, since 1987.

They have learned that, through Mr. Li's personal intervention, 43 impoverished primary school students were able to receive needed medical treatment to cure them of snail fever, a pervasive disease in China's countryside. They have been told that the premier dug into his own pocket to give $39 to the desperate family of a 10-year-old hemophiliac for an operation that saved the youngster's life.

During China's most important holiday, the Spring Festival celebration in February, no newspaper or newscast was without the diligent Mr. Li, who seemed to be everywhere at once -- visiting an average family down a small Beijing alleyway and telecommunications workers at three of the capital's installations, expressing goodwill to overseas Chinese and grief over the war in the Persian Gulf, outlining China's independent foreign policy and his vision of the happy future of Chinese socialism.

This confident posturing contrasts starkly with his humiliation during the spring of 1989 when among the most popular rallying cries of the Tiananmen protesters was "Da dao Li Peng" -- "Down with Li Peng." Other hard-to-forget images from that time include an uncompromising Mr. Li being sharply upbraided on national television by student leaders and a shaken Mr. Li the next day angrily declaring martial law in Beijing.

After the slaughter of hundreds, if not more than a thousand, of the demonstrators, it was Mr. Li who was most singled out for blame along Beijing's streets. At least in the capital, there is little question that this bitterness still lingers, if now mainly expressed in the form of widely popular jokes that spare subtlety in attacking the premier.

Much to Mr. Li's embarrassment, this ire even surfaced recently in the overseas edition of the state-run People's Daily. The newspaper, however inadvertently, printed an eight-line poem by Chinese student in America that -- if read diagonally, taking one character from each of the first seven lines -- contained this message: "Li Peng step down to appease the people's anger."

But China remains a land where, in the words of a South Asian diplomat here, "You don't need to kiss babies and tweak dogs' ears to gain and retain political power." And so Mr. Li's low popular esteem has not seemed to have held him back at all.

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