BEIJING -- China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, out of the public eye for a year, turned up last week in Shenzhen, the Chinese capital of capitalism. The visit is believed to underscore a growing commitment here to accelerating market-style economic reforms.
Chinese leaders commonly journey south for the lunar New Year holiday, which falls this year on Feb. 4. Last year, Mr. Deng, on whose failing health most political questions here hinge, showed up at the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party, Shanghai, looking frail and a bit glassy-eyed.
So a Hong Kong newspaper picture this year of a relatively robust 87-year-old Mr. Deng enjoying a ride in a golf cart just across the colony's border in the booming Shenzhen Special Economic Zone sent some political analysts into euphoria.
Chinese reformists, the analysts declared, have triumphed over Stalinist conservatives in the internal power struggle that dates back to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters.
Aided by an unconfirmed Western news report that deposed Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang had been cleared of charges stemming from the 1989 protests -- a report later denied by Chinese spokesmen -- the Hong Kong stock market also celebrated last week, repeatedly hitting new highs.
But even before Mr. Deng's journey and the rumor regarding Mr. Zhao's political fate, evidence has been mounting that the party's leadership may have concluded that its survival rests on expanding the economic reforms initiated by Mr. Deng in 1978 and closely associated with Mr. Zhao's 1987-1989 tenure.
"The experience in the past decade in China demonstrates that reform is the only way out for China," declared the party newspaper, People's Daily.
The Chinese press also has been running a series of particularly laudatory reports on the country's profitable "Gold Coast," its five special economic zones, of which Shenzhen is the largest and most productive.
Free-wheeling capitalism, based on heavy foreign investment in export industries, has given Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta area the highest living standard in China.
Analysts here believe the possible political shift stems from the suddencrash of Soviet communism last year, which forced Chinese leaders to realize their power depends not on ideological campaigns but on continuing the nation's rapid economic development.
"Deng's trip to Shenzhen allows him to do a couple things: remind people that he's still healthy and give his public stamp of approval to accelerating economic reform," said a Western diplomat. "It's really a means to let everyone know, internally and internationally, that China is going forward in a forceful manner with reform."
This by no means suggests that China's leaders are preparing to extend reforms from the economic to the political sphere.
And whether quickened economic restructuring will come to pass probably depends on the outcome of the 14th party congress later this year, a key meeting at which high-level leadership changes are expected.
But the contrast of Mr. Deng's show of relative health with the reported serious illnesses of three of China's leading hard-liners -- Vice President Wang Zhen and elder statesmen Chen Yun and Deng Liqun -- is also now supporting predictions that the congress will yield a reformist victory.
The glee provoked by Mr. Deng's appearance in Shenzhen continues, particularly in Hong Kong.
There, a leading Chinese-language paper quoted Mr. Deng as saying he favors autonomy for Hong Kong's capitalist system for 100 years following 1997 -- not just 50 years, as had been promised.
And an English-language paper, which labeled Mr. Deng "the butcher of Beijing" following the Tiananmen massacre, now calls him "Beijing's grand old man" in an editorial beseeching him to slip over the border and take a close look at the colony's own economic miracles.
Mr. Deng has vowed not to set foot in Hong Kong until it is under Beijing's rule.
But, pleaded the editorial, "why wait? . . . Let's do it now."