Rumors of Li illness have embassies abuzz, though Chinese citizens shrug

June 01, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- More than a month ago, Chinese Premier Li Peng played tennis with the prime minister of Singapore. Mr. Li, a decidedly nonathletic 64-year-old, lasted just a half-hour before visibly tiring and leaving the court.

Six days later, on April 26, Mr. Li canceled a meeting with visiting Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos. China's Foreign Ministry said the premier had been hospitalized with a cold. "There's no point in making a variety of speculations," spokesman Wu Jianmin warned.

But it now has been more than a month since Mr. Li has been seen in public, and Beijing's embassies are awash in speculation about his physical and political health -- rumors driven in part by the loathing he generates among both Chinese and foreigners.

At first, there was suspicion that Mr. Li's illness might be a classic, Chinese-style retreat from political attack. But there has been no evidence of an offensive against him.

Most observers now think he had a heart attack. And as his absence continues, there are more rumors that he had a second heart attack or a stroke and may have had an operation.

The government appears to be functioning normally without its chief executive. There are no signs of turmoil within it or or the Communist Party. State news media ran several items last week about innocuous messages he supposedly issued recently.

But there has been almost nothing officially offered about Mr. Li's condition. Government spokesman Wu -- who weeks ago stopped saying Mr. Li had a cold -- just keeps repeating that the premier "is in the process of recovering," thereby generating more unanswered questions.

The government's unwillingness to reveal details of Mr. Li's condition is not surprising. Chinese leaders lead isolated lives that are hardly open for public inspection. This is an old instinct in a nation where power relations remain feudal, even as China rapidly modernizes in other ways.

The average Chinese citizen might be expected to be riveted by the mystery of Mr. Li's illness. He is widely known here as "the most hated man in China" for his role in suppressing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As a Beijing college student puts it, "No one will be sorry for him if he dies."

But few Chinese seem to be paying much attention.

"People like us don't care about things like these, and they don't affect us," says a 28-year-old clothes vendor.

Adds a middle-aged man shopping nearby, "We just want to make money."

Nonetheless, if Mr. Li's illness was not political to begin with, the possibility that he might end up in a permanently weakened physical state could have a far-reaching political impact.

Mr. Li is the main front man for party conservatives within China's top leadership. At the annual meeting of China's legislature this spring, he was re-elected to a second five-year term.

Some think he kept his job only because dumping him would be tantamount to reversing the party's condemnation of the Tiananmen Square protests. In any case, he is a key element in the standoff between party reformers and conservatives as they jockey in anticipation of the death of the 88-year-old patriarch, Deng Xiaoping.

"If Li Peng is really sick, it rocks the boat," says political scientist Andrew Nathan of Columbia University in New York. "It shakes up the balance of forces. . . . Many people might be hoping for him to fade away, but does that stabilize the political situation if it leads to reopening negotiations over Deng's successor?"

With the approach of June 4 -- the fourth anniversary of the massacre of the Tiananmen protesters -- any jolt is particularly problematic for this regime.

"Who knows?" Dr. Nathan says. "They might be worried if they release information about Li, the masses would come out into the streets to celebrate."

But for now, there are no firm signals, only theory after theory, regarding the potential political angles to Mr. Li's illness.

And in the end it remains entirely possible that Mr. Li could simply turn up in apparent good health with no further explanation.

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