No massive banners show his face to China's millions and no banners quote his works, but Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping has developed a powerful image in China in a new and modern way that has reached a peak this week in Washington.
The late Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung relied on remoteness and mystery to enhance his charisma. Press interviews with him were rare and press conferences unheard of.
Teng, for reasons peculiar to China in the late 1970s, has experimented with apparent success in creating a personality cult in the fashion of an American politician, using frequent public appearances and heavy doses of television.
In the process, he has finessed an awkward and often puzzling political situation in which he has become the effective ruler of his country without holding the top party, government or army offices. His nominal superior, Premier and Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng, has adopted with some modifications the remote style of Mao, but recent conversations with Chinese in Peking indicate Teng is the man who has caught the popular imagination.
"People just like to watch him," one Chinese wall-poster reader said earlier this month. "He's humorous, and sometimes unpredictable."
This week, with regular coverage of his colorful tour of Washington highlighted on Chinese television and in the national press, Teng is certain to become the focus of daily Chinese urban life as people gather around scattered television sets during the lunar New Year holiday.
A Peking resident, reached by telephone, said Chinese television showed more than an hour of the entertainment gala at the Kennedy Center, with many shots of Teng smiling and applauding.
The Chinese press has worked in recent months to create an appetite for scenes of American skyscrapers, rich banquet tables and gala entertainments, and now the Chinese are seeing it firsthand with Teng in the middle.
In nearly every meeting hall and in many private homes in China, pictures of Mao and Hua hold the place of honor. After visits to several poster shops and bookstores in four Chinese cities during four separate visits to China, only one poster featuring the vice premier could be found.
A clerk at a Canton poster store, asked in August 1977 where the Teng posters were, replied: "They are coming." In November 1978 they had still not arrived.
After Teng returned to power in July 1977, he began a string of public appearances that often focused on China's growing relationship with the United States. These appearances were faithfully broadcast to the Chinese people.
His first major appearance occurred in August, 1977 when he met with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In 1978 he took trips to Southeast Asia and Japan. In the first month of 1979 he has held a press conference in Peking with American reporters and has now embarked on a four-city tour of the United States. All have been covered extensively in the Chinese press, with Teng's press conference being reprinted in full in the Prople's Daily.
In a way, Teng's unusual public accessibility follows the example of his mentor, the man who served for years as second to Mao -- the late premier Chou En-lai. But China did not have the facilities for satellite coverage of foreign visiits in Chou's most active days, and so Teng's exposure is much greater. personality cults, or what might be described as the rapt attention paid to one or more members of the Chinese leadership, significantly affect the course of government in China. Middle-level Chinese officials fear missteps that might cost their jobs and so they watch carefully to see who is receiving the most attention. They tend to give priority to policies favored by that leader, according to foreign analysts and many Chinese themselves.
The official Chinese press in the past year has complained of middle-level officials who are slow to institute Teng-inspired changes, such as the new emphasis on grades over political reliability in admitting students to universities. The attention paid to Teng on television is expected to encourage such officials to move faster.
President Carter reflected American confusion over Teng's status when he mistakenly referred to him as "Mr. Prime Ministerc before correcting himself Monday.
Although Chinese are reluctant to discuss 74-year-old Teng's influence relative to 57-year-old Hua, the more experienced vice premier seems in firm control of the Chinese government. The ruling Politburo has been gradually loaded with some of his closest allies and nearly all the pragmatic modifications of Chinese domestic policy in the last 18 months bear Teng's stamp.