The story appeared to confirm a number of impressions about China - that the 'reform and opening-up' economic policies of Deng Xiaoping and his followers are taking root, that uniformity is giving way to diversity, and that the days of Mao Tse-tung are remembered fondly by only a handful of ageing zealots. Yet the same visitor reported that pictures of Mao, having all but vanished in the years after his death, are making a reappearance: taxis often have one dangling from the rear-view mirror.
'There is a lot of uncertainty in China at the moment, and many people lack orientation,' a Western diplomat said in response to this. 'Some feel that in Mao's day you at least knew where you were, hence the pictures. For most, however, the Communist Party inspires mainly cynicism - on one level people fear it, on another they no longer take it seriously. They seek a purpose elsewhere, which has led to a religious revival, but it can even be seen in things like the sudden craze for body-building.'
If the generation of leaders that went on the Long March with Mao in the 1940s is to do anything about this, the fourteenth Congress, due in the final quarter of the year, is likely to be their last chance. In five years' time, when the next one is held, they may all have died. Mr Deng remains vigorous, and says he wants to visit Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover in 1997, but at 87 he cannot count on it. His main conservative opponent, Chen Yun, is a year younger, but in worse health.
Delegates are already being chosen for the Congress, with some surprising defeats reported among the 'princelings' - the sons and daughters of party chiefs - and work has begun on the documents that will be presented for ritual approval. The crucial meeting, however, is much closer. It will be held not in Peking, but in the coastal resort of Beidaihe, where most of the party elite have villas.
Anyone not actually on his deathbed will attend the summer meeting of the Central Committee in Beidaihe this month because it is likely to determine whether the Congress comes out clearly for economic reform or, as many expect, to end in a patched- up compromise.
'The present people are not decision-makers,' said the Western diplomat. 'Deng got rid of those who were, such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Everyone is looking for personnel changes at the Congress, particularly a new prime minister to replace Li Peng, but it is hard to find a potential candidate who would be any different.'
Even if this cautious group of bickering ancients were to incline towards decisiveness, however, they are confronted by widening contradictions in China. The economic boom in the coastal provinces has contributed to one of the fastest growth rates in the world, but there are now widespread fears of overheating.
Inflation is around 20 per cent, and the government, despite its official commitment to loosening economic controls, is struggling to curb the proliferation of stock markets in cities seeking to emulate Shanghai, where the inappropriately named Jing An, or Tranquility, index has more than doubled this year. A crash in the run-up to the Congress would be extremely embarrassing, but a television campaign warning speculators that shares can go down as well as up has had no visible effect.
At the same time, there is increasing envy among those left out of the rush to wealth, such as the inhabitants of the poorer areas of the interior and employees of the hugely unprofitable state industries, who seem unaware that a rampant private sector is needed to subsidise them. Shanghai's police chief, Zhu Daren, recently admitted that some state employees had gone on strike, staged sit-ins and even beaten up managers attempting to do away with their guarantees of fixed wages and a job for life.
Far from arguing for a crackdown, however, Mr Zhu went on: 'To serve reform and opening well, we must overcome the past thinking of seeking stability and fearing chaos. If we fear the eruption of problems . . . we are limiting economic development.' Clearly he had listened well to Mr Deng, who used his celebrated tour of Shanghai and other coastal areas earlier this year to press the view that the economic reforms should go even faster.
To the supreme leader's conservative opponents, however, Mr Zhu's remarks epitomise what is wrong. They cannot appear to be against economic success, but they argue, not without some accuracy, that the party is losing control. The conservatives demand that more attention be paid to ideology and party discipline, warning that the events which led up to the 1989 suppression of the pro-democracy movement might otherwise be repeated.
There is no dispute that the main goal of the Congress is to keep the Communist Party in power, but no agreement about how that is to be achieved. To the reformists' claim that 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' must be seen to be working, or it will not deserve support, the conservatives retort that the processes under way will produce something unrecognisable as socialism. Both sides may well be right.