BEIJING, OCT. 28 -- China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, is being pressed by many other Communist Party leaders to reverse his announced intention to retire from the party's ruling Politburo, according to key city officials gathered in the capital.
The unexpected revelation, made at a news conference, injected new uncertainty into Deng's attempts to engineer a smooth transition of power from older leaders like himself to younger officials.
Western diplomats said that if Deng, 83, were unable to retire from the Politburo, it would show that the party leadership was torn by conflicts over the succession issue and that Deng's strong presence at the highest level was still required to arbitrate disputes.
It would also reveal a lack of confidence in the ability of Premier Zhao Ziyang, who is expected to take over as party general secretary at the end of the current party congress. Further, it would be an indicator of the strength of conservative, or traditionalist, leaders who have been reluctant to follow Deng's example and retire from the Politburo, diplomats said.
But a number of diplomats, as well as Chinese officials, predicted that despite strong rumors and pressures to the contrary, Deng will, in the end, resign the position. As chairman of the party's military commission, he would retain influence as the country's paramount leader through his continuing leadership of the Army, they said.
Talk of Deng's continued membership on the five-man standing committee of the Politburo, considered the party's most important decision-making body, has been one of the surprises at a party congress that is likely to follow a predetermined course in endorsing economic reforms introduced by Deng, Premier Zhao and their allies in the government and party.
Another surprise has been a decision by the party to permit a degree of open disagreement among officials at the congress, with the aim of stimulating livelier debate and an image of democratic decison-making. Allowing disclosure of the uncertainty over Deng's future role seems to fit in with this more open style of discussion.
Leaders from the cities of Shenyang, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Wuhan created a stir at today's news conference when they were asked to give their views on Deng's retirement plans.
A new Central Committee, elected by the congress, is supposed to vote in secret for members of a new ruling Politburo. Deng has told foreign visitors on several occasions in recent months that he intends to leave the Politburo to make way for younger leaders.
"Many of us have been trying to persuade him not to quit," said Liao Bokang, the party secretary of Chongqing. "And we are also being persuaded to let him leave."
"I hope he won't quit the Political Bureau," said Zhao Baojiang, the mayor of Wuhan. "But Comrade Deng Xiaoping has recently presented an important reason for doing this," Zhao said. "And I'm weighing the pros and cons. At any rate, I hope he will continue to play an important role, quit or not."
Officials speaking at the congress or in news conferences have so far followed what looks for the most part like a predetermined script. But some top reformist party leaders, such as Deng and Zhao, obviously have been determined to liven up the proceedings.
Their aim, it seems, is to broaden the decision-making process as well as attract more interest in the congress from ordinary citizens and intellectuals, whose support is required if Deng and Zhao's economic modernization plans are to succeed.
Having stifled the relatively open debate among intellectuals that was permitted last summer, the party now seems ready to make amends.
The clearest evidence that "lively discussion" is to be encouraged -- provided that it does not challenge the ultimate authority of the party -- has emerged in reports on panel discussions at the congress, which opened Sunday.
In a discussion among Shanghai delegates today, Politburo member Qiao Shi argued that Shanghai would have to make a "drastic" shift in ideology and practice and jettison mandatory planning in favor of a more market-oriented "socialist planned commodity economy," the official New China News Agency reported.
Shanghai Mayor Zhang Zemin agreed, the news agency said, but delegate Li Qunrui, president of the Shanghai branch of the Bank of Communications, disagreed, saying centralized planning had benefited China's largest city.
Li's comments prompted several other delegates to speak out against his idea.