Senior leader Deng Xiaoping ended a five-month public absence Wednesday with an appearance to cast his ballot in local elections, quelling reports he had not recovered from a serious illness last fall.

The 86-year-old patriarch's televised appearance also came at a crucial moment in China, coinciding with a meeting of the ruling Communist Party central committee that is expected to extend Deng's economic reform polices through the end of the century.Deng appeared at his local polling place inside the walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, according to the official Xinhua news agency and state-run Chinese Central Television, which broadcast videotape of the rare event.

Deng's eyes appeared sunken and red and his right hand trembled visibly as he marked his ballot, but he smiled confidently and shuffled unassisted to the ballot box to cast his vote.

Dozens of aides doted on the elderly leader as he paused to smile for Chinese television cameras and photographers, sporting a well-tailored blue tunic of the style favored by the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The ostensibly retired leader's appearance was the lead item on the CCTV national newscast. Western reporters were not invited to the highly restricted and unannounced event.

Until Wednesday, the architect of China's decade-old economic and political reforms had not appeared in public since mid-July.

Deng, who gave up his last official post early this year, has repeatedly expressed his wish to step back and let younger leaders take center stage, saying he would meet only with "old friends."