Li emerges, ending seclusion in China Leader acts healthy despite rumors

June 15, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng appears to have lost a little weight but not his political standing as he finally emerged yesterday from an unusual, if not mysterious, seven weeks out of public view.

Widely rumored to have had a heart attack, Mr. Li appeared fairly healthy though slightly leaner as he welcomed the visiting Malaysian prime minister at the Great Hall of the People.

His appearance capped weeks of rumors about his physical condition, including speculation that he had been paralyzed by a stroke.

The rumors were fueled by official statements that first claimed Mr. Li only had a bad cold and then simply said he was recuperating. He had not been seen in public since April 24.

Yesterday, Mr. Li, 64, appeared to be making an effort to counteract doubts about his vigor by walking quickly, smiling and gesturing a lot and, as a Western observer put it, "putting on a show."

But when Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, directly asked him about his health as they exchanged pleasantries, Mr. Li stopped smiling and did not answer before reporters were led out of the room.

Official unwillingness to provide details of Mr. Li's health problems and his seven-week convalescence underscores the fragile self-confidence of the Chinese regime and Mr. Li's uncertain position within its top leadership.

Mr. Li was elected to a second five-year term by China's rubber-stamp legislature in March, but he remains a much hated figure for his leading role in squashing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He also has been slow to show support for Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's dramatic move last year to speed up China's economic reforms.

The prime minister's absence from China's formal political stage prompted observers to speculate that he might be losing power to his two main rivals, Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, an economic reformer who serves as the first vice premier.

But there has been no firm sign of that.

Indeed, the state news agency trumpeted Mr. Li's return yesterday with an unusually swift bit of reporting that was labeled a "news flash," and China's national TV news spent its first five minutes last night on two long pieces showing Mr. Li greeting his Malaysian guest.

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