Where's Li Peng?
Seven weeks ago, China's Foreign Ministry announced that Premier Li Peng was postponing a much heralded trip to Central Asia because he had "a cold." He has not been seen since. Every week, at the Foreign Ministry's press briefing, foreign journalists ask about his health. The spokesman always answers the same way. "Premier Li Peng," he says, "is recovering."
This week, the story could be resolved--or get more mysterious. Commenting on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's visit to China this week, the government spokesman said last week that Li "will receive Prime Minister Mahathir personally." And no, the spokesman said, the premier would not receive his guest in a hospital.
The case of the premier's illness highlights the anachronistic nature of China's political system. Americans hear intimate details of their leaders' health, from Les Aspin's pacemaker to Bill Clinton's allergies. Yet in an age of satellite communications, the leader of a country that has nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and 1.17 billion people has simply disappeared. His government felt no need to tell anyone what was really wrong with him or even where he was.
Hearing nothing from official sources, many Chinese have engaged in wild speculation. Some have suggested Li's problems are political, not physical. Some even guessed he had a heart attack or a stroke. A photo of Li "recovering" might have calmed the rumors. But the only evidence presented that he was even alive came in a series of telegrams, published in the state-run press, in which he commended bureaucrats for holding conferences.
This story appears in the June 21, 1993 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.