BEIJING — When the acting general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, read a 72-page report to delegates at the opening session of the party's 13th National Congress on Sunday, he spoke at an impressive speed.
It still took him 2 1/2 hours to get through the document. But by moving along at the fastest appropriate pace, Zhao fulfilled a light-hearted pledge that he made backstage to one of his colleagues just before the conference began.
In a colorful article that reflected the unprecedented openness surrounding this party congress--and that also served to present an image of China's leaders as old friends with no serious disputes dividing them--the official People's Daily on Monday offered readers a glimpse into the backstage banter among the old revolutionaries who run China.
The main topic, not too surprisingly, was each other's health. The article relates how Deng Xiaoping, 83, China's paramount leader, walked into the Great Hall of the People "with healthy steps and a glowing face" to be greeted by Deng Yingchao, 83, the widow of Premier Chou En-lai.
Deng Xiaoping then spotted Marshal Nie Rongzhen, 88, "sitting not too far away in a wheelchair." He suggested to Deng Yingchao that the three have a picture taken together.
"The three old comrades warmly shook hands and congratulated each other on the opening of the 13th congress and urged each other to pay attention to health, to live a long happy life," according to the article.
Zhao, 68, was described as "very relaxed" just before giving his report.
The congress' chairman, Peng Zhen, 85, a leading critic of some of Zhao's reformist policies, shook hands with Zhao and said, according to the report, "Today, it's up to you."
"I'll read my report as fast as I can, or it will just drag on," Zhao replied.
Deng Xiaoping, informed that more than 400 Chinese and foreign reporters were in the hall to cover the meeting, replied happily: "Good, good! This shows that the whole world is paying attention."
Press photographers also pointed their cameras at the reformist former general secretary, Hu Yaobang, who was forced to resign in January amid criticism by hard-liners for his handling of pro-democracy student demonstrations. The 72-year-old replied with a comment that sounded modest but seemed to some readers to be a reminder that he is still fairly young by Chinese leadership standards--and that some sort of political comeback should not be ruled out.
"Take pictures of older comrades," Hu said with a laugh.