December 29, 1975 12:00 PM

No sooner had President Gerald Ford’s Air Force jet rolled to a halt at Peking’s Capital Airport than it became apparent how the old order had changed. Stepping forward to clasp the President’s hand as he alighted was neither China’s enfeebled Chairman Mao Tse-tung nor the critically ill Premier Chou En-lai but tough, blunt spoken Teng Hsiao-ping. Conferring with Ford four times during the President’s five-day summit visit early this month, and sitting at his elbow during a welcoming banquet, the tiny (4’11”), self-confident Teng (pronounced dung) has apparently already assumed Chou’s role—and may be the successor to Mao.

The only man in the People’s Republic to hold key positions in the government (vice-premier), the Communist Party (vice-chairman) and the military (chief-of-staff), Teng has enjoyed a remarkable return from oblivion. Only nine years ago, during the chaotic Cultural Revolution, Maoists paraded him through the streets of Peking in a dunce cap. Denounced by Red Guards as a “demon,” a “freak” and a “defender of Soviet revisionism,” the chastened Teng dropped abruptly from sight. Not until 1973, when he was unexpectedly named a vice premier did he resurface in a position of power.

Born in Scechwan province 71 years ago, Teng graduated from a Chinese middle school, then went on to a work-and-study program in France. There, at the age of 16, he fell in with other Chinese students—Chou En-lai among them—who were plotting the future of a Communist China. Teng published a mimeographed newspaper, Red Glow, and was nicknamed “Doctor of Mimeographing.” Later, he returned to China via Moscow to serve as a political officer in the National army. By 1929, after Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang had split with the Communists, Teng was organizing Red guerrilla bands near the Vietnamese border. When the Red army was driven into retreat five years later, Teng joined Mao Tse-tung on the desperate 6,000-mile Long March to the remote caves of Yenan, where the battered Communists regrouped. After Mao and his followers gained control of China in 1949, Teng was rewarded with appointments to the two top governmental and military councils. In 1954 it was revealed that he was secretary-general of the Communist Party.

A truculent negotiator and a harsh critic of the Soviet Union, Teng led Peking’s delegation to Moscow in 1956 when the Sino-Soviet alliance was beginning to disintegrate. Returning to Russia in 1960, the obdurate Teng so antagonized his hosts that he was attacked in Europe in 1962 for pursuing an “erroneous” Communist line. In 1963 virtually the entire Chinese leadership—Chairman Mao included—saw him off at Peking airport as he departed for a final ideological showdown with Moscow. Two weeks later talks were broken off and Teng was welcomed home in triumph.

Some China-watchers suspect that his loss of power in the Cultural Revolution was due to his ideological ambivalence. “Private farming is all right as long as it raises production,” he once observed. “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” Personally arrogant—”he considered himself a walking encyclopedia,” sniffed one Chinese rival—the chain-smoking Teng cultivated decadent pleasures like MahJong and bridge, and was accused of ordering “high-class meals” from his favorite Scechwanese restaurant, the Chengtu. (Closed during his disgrace, the restaurant was recently reopened.) Finally, Teng had drifted apart from his old friend Mao, who complained that Teng treated him like “a dead ancestor.” Reports say that Teng sat out the Cultural Revolution playing cards with old cronies. (He is married to an obscure woman named Cho Lin and they have at least two grown sons.) Teng probably owes his political resurrection to his undeniable administrative skills and his hard-line anti-Soviet attitude. Though his rough country manners contrast sharply with Chou’s urbane polish, he has earned Secretary of State Kissinger’s respect for his shrewd grasp of world affairs. There is, however, little affection between the two. Kissinger once called Teng “a nasty little man,” while Teng sometimes dismisses Kissinger as “your doctor of philosophy.” Contemptuous of Kissinger’s goal of detente with the Soviets, he has likened the U.S. to a fat man being hunted by a polar bear. As for his own intellectual credentials, he observes bluntly: “I have never actually studied in a university, but I believe that I was born in one. Only the kind I was in has no graduates. Its name is society.”

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