Chinese leaders gather at death-bed of Deng

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The Independent Online
Peking was buzzing last night with rumours about the possible impending death of the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese president and prime minister have both cut short out-of-town trips to return to Peking, sources said.

President Jiang Zemin cut short an unpublicised visit to the communist revolutionary base of Ganzhou in central Jiangxi province, one Chinese source close to the party said.

Premier Li Peng also flew back to Peking at the weekend, abruptly curtailing a tour of the booming, southern province of Guangdong. Jiang Zemin and Li Peng also cut short their trips and rushed back to Beijing because Deng Xiaoping's health was deteriorating," sources said.

"They went to see Deng ... over the weekend," the source said. "His health is not looking good."

There have been increasing rumours in Peking over the past few days that Deng's health may be failing. The State Council, or cabinet, declined to comment on the rumours.

Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper reported at the weekend that Mr Deng had been rushed to hospital on Thursday after a massive stroke that followed an earlier, mild stroke.

If Mr Deng, as the patriarch once put it himself, is about "to go to meet Marx", then President Jiang Zemin has a period of intense political manoeuvring ahead in order to preserve his position as first among equals in China's collective top leadership. Mr Jiang - president, communist party chief and head of the armed forces - was anointed by Mr Deng as the "core" of the collective leadership, but he is viewed as a weak leader with none of the charisma and claim to power of Mr Deng.

However, the fact that 92-year-old Mr Deng has lived much longer than anyone expected means that Mr Jiang has had time to promote several allies to senior positions in the military and top leadership. While Mr Deng's death might once have sparked an overt and de-stabilising power struggle, most China-watchers now believe it would portend months of behind-the- scenes jockeying for position among China's most influential politicians, but that the Communist Party's wish to retain power will avoid any public splits. The most important goal for Mr Jiang is to retain the support of the military.

The one obvious threat to Mr Jiang would be if any disgruntled section of society should use Mr Deng's death as an excuse to vent complaints about China's serious social problems such as corruption and rising unemployment. However, after a two-year crackdown on dissent, most pro-democracy and human rights activists are in detention, and the state's vast security network has a strong hold.

It is now just 10 days into the new Year of the Ox, and if Mr Deng were to die so early in the Chinese New Year it would be seen by the superstitious as a bad omen. Since the beginning of this year, China has trumpeted loudly that 1997 is the most "significant" year in recent Chinese history because of three "important" events: the return of Hong Kong on 1 July, the full Communist Party congress in the Autumn, and the diversion of the Yangtze river for the Three Gorges Dam in November. The odds now look high that there may be a fourth event before the year is out.