It was only an oblique reference, but the timing was no coincidence. Short people, the official Xinhua news agency announced at the end of last week, "tend to live longer than tall people". And today, China's most famous short person, Deng Xiaoping (5ft nothing), will celebrate his 91st birthday.
A year ago, the betting was that he would not survive another winter, and that China would by now be plunged into a succession crisis. But China's frail paramount leader has confounded the sceptics and the rumours. Hale and hearty he is not, but alive he is.
Mr Deng's longevity has caused some unexpected problems. Earlier this month, his family was reported to be enraged because a commemorative issue of stamps featuring "Our Chief Architect" had nearly sold out. The trouble was that the 30,000 stamps were not supposed to go on sale until after Mr Deng's death. "When people are still alive, you don't usually sell these kinds of things," said one manager at the Peking shop which was designated the only sales outlet.
The long decline of the elder statesman, and the fact that he is now too ill to be seen publicly, has also posed challenges to the propaganda apparatus. The last up-to-date film footage of Mr Deng was shown on television back in February 1994, and since then there has been only one new photograph. Breaking with routine, Mr Deng made no public appearance for this year's New Year.
The lack of physical evidence has fuelled the rumour-mill. He is regularly described as suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, heart ailments, the ravages of strokes, and circulation problems to the brain.
He has been in and out of hospital, and has probably not left Peking for more than a year. He is said no longer to be lucid all the time, slipping in and out of consciousness.
Mr Deng's children publicly maintain that he is determined to survive until July 1997, when he will visit a Hong Kong reunited with the mainland.
One person, at least, surely hopes that Mr Deng will hold out that long. Jiang Zemin, the man now supposedly running China, knows that his positions as President, Communist Party chief, and head of the army, become more secure the longer Mr Deng clings to life. The power of the ageing patriarch has diminished over the past two years. He now merely sanctions policy rather than initiates it, but while he lives, no one will depart from the Deng line.
Mr Jiang, a mere 69, regularly invokes the Deng name to press policies which he believes are both popular and politically expedient, such as the fight against corruption.
At the weekend, timed to coincide with Mr Deng's birthday, the party held a symposium to discuss "Deng Xiaoping Thought". In official newspapers, the deputy head of the party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission, Chen Zuolin, cited the Deng contribution to the task of rooting out corruption among cadres.
In Peking, two high-profile casualties of Mr Jiang's anti-corruption measures were a deputy mayor, Wang Baosen, who shot himself, and the city's party chief, Chen Xitong, now under house arrest. Corruption is rampant in Peking, and few doubt that those at the top had taken their share of the illicit gains. But it suited Mr Jiang to remove senior city figures who were not his allies, as a prelude to installing his own placemen.
The iron maiden of Mao's model village, Section Two, page 2
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