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China mourns immortal Long March veteran

And then there were three. The eldest of China's so-called "Eight Immortals" has died, removing from the political stage another of the Long March veterans whose behind-the-scenes influence continued long after they gave up any official positions. Peng Zhen passed away at the weekend, aged 95, just two months after the death of the most powerful Immortal of them all, Deng Xiaoping.

Television newscasters, wearing mourning suits, yesterday read out lengthy obituaries hailing Mr Peng as "a great proletarian revolutionary ... and a major founder of the socialist legal system in China".

Mr Peng was last seen in public in September. Although confined to a wheelchair in recent years, the politically orthodox former party chief and mayor of Peking remained more active in his nineties than Mr Deng, and, as one of the Communist Party's elder statesman, maintained a wide web of contacts.

The death of Mr Peng on Saturday night removes another back-room player in the run-up to this October's full party congress, at which President Jiang Zemin will seek to reaffirm his role as the "core" of the post-Deng leadership. However, Mr Jiang is well aware that two of the remaining Immortals still wield substantial influence. General Yang Shangkun, who was ousted as president in 1992 for trying to build a power base for the post-Deng era, is a sprightly 89. Bo Yibo, also 89, was an ally of Mr Deng and a supporter of economic reform. Song Renqiong, a mere 87, was a party stalwart but is no longer seen as a key figure.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Eight Immortals steered China towards reform under Deng's policies. Mr Peng, who in April 1966 was the first top-level target of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, was banished to the countryside for 12 years. After his rehabilitation, he was put in charge of drafting amendments to the constitution in 1982, which increased the role of the National People's Congress. From 1983 to 1988 he was chairman of the NPC.

Mr Peng supported an independent legal framework - "Before the law, all are equal," he said. But he also insisted on the absolute rule of the Communist Party, objected to Western influences, and spoke out against parts of the Deng reform programme. In 1989, Mr Peng is said to have approved of martial law in Peking, but he also maintained that the pro- democracy students had patriotic motives.