BEIJING, DEC. 26 -- China's senior leader Deng Xiaoping, who has been rumored to be seriously ill, made his first public appearance today in nearly five months, casting his ballot in city-wide elections.
Deng, 86, was shown entering a polling station in Zhongnanhai, the party headquarters near Tiananmen Square. Although the official New China News Agency described Deng as "braving a chilly winter wind" to walk "vigorously" into the polling center, the television evening news showed a less sure-footed man.
Flanked by his daughter and an aide, Deng walked slowly to the registration table, where he sat down to sign his name.
Then, with his daughter supporting his arm, he walked to the ballot box and deposited his pink ballot slip. With flashlights popping all around him, Deng asked, "is it over?"
"It's over," someone replied.
Deng was last seen in public July 3, when he toured the Asian Games village on the outskirts of the capital. Since then, he is not known to have met any foreign visitors. His continued public absence fueled rumors about his failing health, but today's appearance is clearly aimed at dispelling those reports.
Deng has retired from all official positions and holds no formal posts within the Communist Party. Athough his prestige was severely damaged by last year's brutal suppression of democracy demonstrations, Deng is still widely regarded as China's most influential leader.
Deng's wishes for continued economic reform apparently have strengthened the hands of moderates in a Communist Party Central Committee meeting that is believed to have begun Tuesday. The long-delayed meeting is being held to discuss the next five-year plan.
Today's election was for delegates to district and county level people's congresses, which have no legislative power but act as conduits for citizens' ideas and complaints. Candidates are carefully chosen and are dominated by the Communist Party.