Deng out of the swim of things: China is struggling to quell reports that its paramount leader is ailing, Teresa Poole writes from Hong Hong

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The Independent Culture
EVERY August, as the humid heat becomes oppressive, Peking-watchers normally await reports of seasonal sightings from Beidaihe, the seaside resort where the inner Chinese power clique gathers in the summer to discuss policy.

Deng Xiaoping's annual Beidaihe swims have come to provide reassuring evidence that China's ageing and ailing paramount leader is still alive and kicking.

Not, though, this year. Recent reports in the Hong Kong newspapers suggest Mr Deng will not be in Beidaihe this summer, fuelling the past month's gossip that he is too ill to travel and must remain near the capital's medical facilities. But, in the Peking rumour-mill, no one really knows for certain.

Such has been the recent speculation about Mr Deng's health that the forthcoming publication of a biography by one of his daughters, Mr Father, Deng Xiaoping by Deng Rong, has been cited as evidence that he must at last be on the way out. Other analysts point out wryly that, since it took Ms Deng three years to complete the story of her father's life up to 1949, the paramount leader may be planning to stay around a while to read the final volume. Mr Deng himself has said he is planning to visit Hong Kong after China regains sovereignty in 1997.

Although he celebrates his 89th birthday in two weeks' time, Mr Deng remains the most powerful man in China. But the uncertainty surrounding the succession means the jostling for position in the post-Deng era becomes more frenetic with each new hint that he is ailing. The president and party boss, Jiang Zemin, is trying to cement new ties with the military, which will have a pivotal role to play in any succession battle. Zhu Rongji, the Deputy Prime Minister, is battling to bring the overheating economy under control, knowing that failure could ruin his political future. Qiao Shi, head of the National People's Congress, seems to be strengthening his position. And all this at a time of uncertainty over whether the economy can be reined in without a crash-landing.

Deng-watching has been a frustrating sport this year. He was last seen publicly in January during the lunar new year celebrations in Shanghai. He looked very frail and, as usual, appeared to depend on one of his daughters to translate his grunts for wider consumption.

In mid-July a Foreign Ministry spokesman officially denied Japanese media reports that Mr Deng had undergone surgery for testicular cancer. The next day, Deng Lin, his artist daughter, arrived in Hong Kong and said his health was good: in fact, she had dined with him recently.

Unfortunately, confidence in official health reports is running low after the seven-week absence earlier this year of the Prime Minister, Li Peng. He was said to be suffering from a bad cold but, in fact, he has a serious heart ailment. Experienced China- watchers prefer instead to keep track of the whereabouts of close family members and key officials. If they are travelling abroad as Qiao Shi, head of the National People's Congress, is this week, then Mr Deng is thought not to be at death's door.

On 21 July Mr Deng missed the funeral of General Li Da, a revolutionary colleague, again suggesting health problems. A few days later, hoping to dispel the rumours, the official New China News Agency announced that Mr Deng had written an inscription for a new bridge in Shanghai.

Then came an American media report quoting US China specialists with intelligence contacts saying Mr Deng really was dying. Diplomats looked for signs of troops being positioned, a likely safeguard before an announcement. All was quiet. At the end of July a Western news agency report quoted Chinese sources as saying that the paramount leader had suffered only a renewed inflammation of his prostate gland.

This week the Peking-controlled Ta Kung Pao newspaper in Hong Kong reported that Mr Deng had undergone a medical check-up at a military hospital in the capital but doctors 'have not found anything unusual'. A doctor was quoted: 'He walks and talks no differently than in the past.' But sceptics pointed out no date was given for the check-up.

The beginnings of an orchestrated Deng personality cult is starting. The official media now rank him with the likes of Chairman Mao and Marx, books of his speeches appear and an institute on Deng Xiaoping Theory has been set up in Shanghai.

A firm is producing badges showing him, according to the Popular Daily newspaper, 'radiant with health and vigour . . . '