CHINESE Premier Li Peng has been sidelined by illness, fueling speculation that his absence could affect Communist leadership struggles.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Li, the conservative leader widely hated for imposing martial law and backing the Army crackdown on democracy demonstrators in 1989, was forced to cancel all activities and a trip with Chinese business leaders to Central Asia. He was also missing from the leadership lineup at the Chinese Communist Youth League congress this month.
At that time, the government said Li had a "cold," although some Western diplomats and Chinese observers say he may have had heart trouble. His recovery is expected to take several months, observers say. (Yesterday Li appeared briefly to chair a meeting prior to a national science conference.)
"It doesn't seem to be a political illness," says a Western diplomat, responding to suggestions that Li's health problem is a political maneuver.
The prime minister's health problems come as rival Chinese leaders jockey for position in the succession struggle expected following the death of the country's aging paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.
At the annual meeting of the Chinese parliament in March, Jiang Zemin, Communist Party general secretary and head of the Central Military Commission, won the ceremonial presidency, making him the pivotal figure in the post-Deng transition.
But Mr. Jiang is widely considered a weak leader unlikely to outlast the immediate period after Deng's death. Chinese analysts say there are signs that rivals already are criticizing Jiang openly, challenging his position.
Jiang is considered equivocal on Deng's market-style economic reforms, which have divided Communist liberals and conservatives. Li, in the past an outspoken critic of the push for rapid economic change and growth, withheld his attacks on Deng's policies at the parliament meeting in March.
He won reelection to a second five-year term even though a core of legislators withdrew their support in an embarrassing protest over his continuance in power. Since the 1989 massacre, Li has been unwelcome in many Western countries.
His illness could lift Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, a prominent reformer who has shepherded many of Deng's reforms, further into the limelight.