Peking — Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, exuding health and good humor, has returned to the public scene after a month-long absence.
Hosting a meeting with Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in the Great Hall of the People here Feb. 18, Mr. Deng apparently had a good laugh at stories suggesting he had been toppled. He told Prince and Madame Sihanouk there had been speculation abroad about his nearly one month's rest in other parts of the country, according to Peking television news.
''The present situation in China, he declared, was one of unprecedented stability,'' the official New China News Agency (Xinhua) commented.
Mr. Deng's reappearance means that during this week China's three top leaders , Mr. Deng, Communist Party Chairman Hu Yaobang, and Premier Zhao Ziyang, have all appeared after absences of various lengths. All have been quoted as stressing the importance of the current campaign to streamline the government's administrative machinery, including retiring elderly or incompetent cadres.
''We are determined to take it (the streamlining process) as a revolution,'' Mr. Deng told Prince Sihanouk. ''Of course,'' he continued, ''this is a revolution in administrative structure, not a revolution against people.''
The previous day, Premier Zhao told Hong Kong shipping magnate Sir Yue-Kong Pao, ''the key problem is how to raise work efficiency. So we've got to simplify our government structure. Originally we estimated this would be very difficult, but now it appears the work is going much more smoothly than expected.''
Mr. Zhao said that in this process, ''quite a number of veteran comrades will be discharged from day-to-day work and those comrades who have ability, political integrity, professional knowledge, and are in the prime of life will be promoted to leading posts.''
Mr. Hu spoke in a similar vein with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Prof. Samuel C. Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Feb. 15. Messrs. Zhao and Hu also spoke of the need to crack down on economic crimes and breaches of party discipline by leading cadres.
The manner in which China's top leaders reappeared and emphasized the same points, suggests either they have just concluded a series of high-level meetings or that they have been out in the countryside assessing the situation. A combination of both seems most likely. Mr. Zhao in particular has the reputation of being a shirt-sleeve administrator who insists on seeing things first hand.
All three appeared pleased and confident about the way things have proceeded so far. But Mr. Deng did say, ''I think the job can be finished much earlier than expected.''
Mr. Deng and Prince Sihanouk, both short and similar in stature, embraced each other when they met. Prince Sihanouk and his wife presented a basket of flowers to Mr. Deng. Previously, while Mr. Deng was out of public view, Prince Sihanouk is said to have sent Mr. Deng fresh croissants from Paris, while Mr. Deng reciprocated with a basket of persimmons.
Mr. Deng also used the meeting with Prince Sihanouk to press for establishing a tripartite coalition of Kampuchean forces to resist the Vietnamese occupiers. The Chinese have consistently supported the Khmer Rouge led by Khieu Samphan, with Pol Pot commanding the armed forces. Khieu Samphan will arrive soon in Peking for talks with Prince Sihanouk.
The Khmer Rouge are acknowledged to have the best fighting forces of the three groups opposing the Vietnamese, but are internationally unpopular because of their brutal policies when in power. Former Premier Son Sann has a Western-oriented but militarily weaker force. Prince Sihanouk, though internationally the most prestigious of the anti-Vietnamese leaders, has the weakest force.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations also promotes a tripartite coalition, and is showing increasing impatience with the Khmer Rouge.
Prince Sihanouk, astute and coldly realistic behind a front of mercuria, ups and downs, is marshalling his few resources -- international reputation, Chinese goodwill, some respect in his own country -- to form a coalition that might in turn induce the Vietnamese to withdraw from Kampuchea.