Ailing Deng has pundits pondering his absence

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The Independent Online
An edited extract from yesterday's weekly press briefing at the Chinese Foreign Ministry:

Q: Recently there are some reports that Deng Xiaoping's health is very bad. Can you confirm this?

A: Comrade Deng Xiaoping's health is in good condition . . . It is hoped that such questions will in the future be referred to the competent departments . . .

Q: Which departments are (the competent departments)? You say he's in good health. Is that in hospital or at home?

A: Comrade Deng Xiaoping is right now where he should be . . . I believe you should know well yourself which departments you should approach.

For two weeks China (and its stock markets) have been swept by rumours that Deng Xiaoping, 90, is about to meet Marx. So readers of the official China Business Times might have wondered what to make of the news that in the Lucky Old Man Life Knowledge Competition, China's ailing paramount leader was sole winner in the 'Special Lucky Old Man' category.

Mr Deng did not collect his award. Depending on which of the stories one hears, the architect of China's reforms can barely speak, hear or walk, is in the last stages of Parkinson's Disease, or is on a life-support machine. He has not been seen publicly since a February television appearance for the New Year, when he looked frail. Analysts say if he was in a fit state, he would have been wheeled out on 1 October for National Day, the republic's 45th anniversary.

No one believes official declarations that Mr Deng enjoys 'good health'. Nor do they believe the Communist Party line that a smooth handover has taken place, with President Jiang Zemin at the 'core' of the new leadership. Most analysts predict a power struggle within a year of Mr Deng's demise.

In the real world, China's fledgling stock markets take an unsentimental view of the health problems of lingering revolutionary elders. At one point last Friday, Shanghai's official 'A' share index dropped 18 per cent as investors offloaded shares amid rumours that Mr Deng's death was about to be announced. Then the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied he was dead, and rumours started that it was Chen Yun, Mr Deng's 89- year old conservative adversary on economic reform, who had passed away. That only helped the rebound, the index ending the day 12 per cent up.

The state-run media inadvertently provides material for conspiracy theorists. In the past few weeks, there has been a plethora of official reports about Mr Deng's historic contributions, interpreted by some analysts as way of preparing the population for his death. Last Sunday, when all anyone wanted was an honest health report, newspapers carried an extensive editorial on his 10-year contribution to research in high-energy physics.

Like old-style Kremlin- watchers, Sinologists must search for hidden meanings. Weekend coverage in the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, featured the headline, 'Xiaoping loves the people, the people love Xiaoping', above a story marking the close of a photographic retrospective.

Top of the page was a 1989 picture of Mr Deng chatting with Jiang Zemin. As if to underline that a new generation of leaders has taken over, the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and his fellow senior Politburo member, Qiao Shi, hover in the background.

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