THE DEATH of the 88-year-old Deng Yingchao, widow of the former Prime Minister Chou Enlai, and foster mother to the current premier, Li Peng, brings to five the number of octogenarian 'Long Marchers' who have died this year.
The last to go, in June, was the former President Li Xiannian, an aloof technocrat and hardline Communist who never courted popularity. Deng Yingchao, in contrast, was, at least until recently, a rarity among Chinese leaders - a figure who inspired genuine popular affection. In large measure this was because she basked in the reflected glory of her late husband, Chou Enlai, who enjoyed unrivalled prestige. In the Communist Party's mythology, Deng Yingchao (no relation to the elder statesman and exact contemporary Deng Xiaoping) was the good fairy to the evil witch personified by Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao's wife.
No other woman has enjoyed such political power in Communist China. Deng Yingchao played a leading role in her own right in the party's history. She was arrested for taking part in the Fourth of May Movement in 1919 - anti-government protests sparked by the outcome of the Versailles treaty. Thereafter, with Chou Enlai, she helped found the 'Awakening Society' of political activists in the northern port of Tianjin. In 1920 she accompanied him to Paris, where the following year they formed the Paris branch of the Chinese Communist Party. They returned to China in 1924, and married a year later.
Forced underground after the nationalists - the Kuomintang - massacred their Communist partners in Shanghai in 1927, she and her husband then spent time in Moscow. But by 1930, they were back in Shanghai, and then joined Mao Tse-tung and his colleagues in the Communists' rural base in southern Jiangxi province.
Deng Yingchao was one of the few women to survive the 'Long March' from Jiangxi across China in 1934-35. Tales of her heroism on the march, much of which she endured on a stretcher, suffering from tuberculosis, became part of the Chou Enlai legend.
While her husband remained Prime Minister from the founding of the People's Republic, in 1949, until his death in 1976, Deng Yingchao enjoyed a number of senior if largely honorific political titles. Her most important political career began with her husband's death. The new regime used Deng Yingchao as a roving ambassador, and in the late 1970s she was frequently called on to receive visiting delegations. From 1978 to 1985 she was on the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, a post she relinquished when she took over the chair of the advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), from Deng Xiaoping.
She retired from politics when Li Xiannian succeeded her at the CPPCC in 1988. But, like her contemporaries, Deng Yingchao remained an important influence behind the scenes. In May 1989, as student protestors thronged Tiananmen Square, the People's Daily newspaper carried an open letter from her, calling on the students to go back to the classroom, and saying that the people of Peking should support the army in its task of restoring order to the capital city.
At the time, leaked reports of top-level discussion among Communist leaders revealed Deng Yingchao as still an important voice in their deliberations. Her apparent support for the army's massacre of civilian protestors undoubtedly damaged her popularity, which was further jeopardised by her relationship with the loathed current Prime Minister, Li Peng. Li's parents died in the 1930s, as 'revolutionary martyrs', and he was brought up in the Communist base at Yenan by Chou Enlai and his wife.
But for many, Deng Yingchao retained the status of national 'elder sister', and a residual popular fondness for her homely, unassuming manner and history of devoted service to her party and to her husband.
At China's leaders' National Day reception in October 1989, she looked frail and confused, seeming not to recognise Li Peng. Her last televised appearance was the following April, characteristically addressing a group of children. 'Let me tell you', she told them, confidentially, before trotting out the title of the party's favourite ditty, 'without the Communist party, there would be no new China'.
Her death has been seen as removing one more octogenarian sceptic arguing for caution about Deng Xiaoping's latest reform drive. Her last public statement, just last month, however, was another open letter in the People's Daily, backing Deng Xiaoping, and it is Li Peng, the most obvious candidate for a top-level scapegoat for the massacre, who may have most to fear from her absence. The official Chinese eulogies of Deng Yingchao note that in 1982, she stipulated that none of her or Chou's relatives should benefit from the association after her demise.