BEIJING -- Chinese Premier Li Peng, widely reviled here and abroad for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, has confounded his many critics by not only keeping his job since then but appearing to thrive in it.
Today, however, Mr. Li is expected to suffer an embarrassing political setback that may leave him significantly weakened as he enters the last year of his five-year term in office.
The setback involves a political code phrase -- a call to fight "leftism" -- which the premier has been forced to include in the final version of his annual report to China's legislature, according to Chinese and Western sources.
The report, amended in dozens of ways to conform with the new reform drive mounted by senior leader Deng Xiaoping, is expected to be approved today by the National People's Congress in what would amount to a humiliating no-confidence vote for Mr. Li.
Mr. Li "could be reduced to a pathetic lame duck," said a Western analyst. "He very likely will keep his job for the time being, but he's going to be very isolated and open to attacks."
Guarding against "leftism" -- meaning vigilance against orthodox RTC Marxist ideology -- is the new litmus test of political loyalty to Mr. Deng and his campaign for accelerated economic reforms.
Since Mr. Deng's proclamation in January that "leftism" poses more dangers for China than experimenting with such capitalist methods as stock markets, most other top leaders have come forward to toe the same line.
The Communist Party's ruling body, the Politburo, parroted the warning in an unusual statement March 12 that subordinated traditional socialist ideology to the goal of generating greater economic growth.
But the hard-line premier, who owes his job to conservative opponents of Mr. Deng, failed to include any mention of the threat of "leftism" in the first draft of his report, delivered on national television to the legislature March 20.
At the time, the absence of the warning was taken as a signal that Mr. Deng still faced substantial resistance.
During the legislature's two-week
annual meeting, however, that resistance has appeared to wither as China's national media, military leaders and even certain elderly conservatives all have joined Mr. Deng's reform bandwagon.
Since the Tiananmen crackdown, Mr. Li has been popularly known here as the most hated man in China. Word that he has been forced to kowtow to Mr. Deng produced both glee and fear among some that it could prompt conservatives to mount a counter-campaign.
"We all laughed when we heard about it," said a Beijing writer. "But I'm afraid that some people now will try to take advantage of this to push for more reforms too fast, and that will cause a conservative backlash."
But some Western diplomats said that Mr. Li's humiliation underscores the weakness of the conservatives in China's top leadership, several of whom are so ill that they have not been seen in public in recent years.
"I don't know if Li is guilty of being arrogant, stupid or just not cautious," said one envoy. "But if he thought that he had enough backing to challenge Deng, it's pretty obvious there's not much strength on the conservative side right now."