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China's leaders put unity to fore as last red emperor is given a macabre farewell

Deng Xiaoping's cremation: 100,000 line the streets as party ensures smooth transition of power
"Unity after death", should have read the banners above the body of Deng Xiaoping as he lay wrapped in the red national flag and surrounded by flowers for a last macabre media appearance. For that was the message meant for the Chinese people last night, as state television broadcast the first and last pictures of the patriarch's body, his grey-faced corpse now a centre-stage prop for those who would inherit his mantle.

Lined up solemnly to the front was President Jiang Zemin, the prime minister Li Peng, and the other five members of the standing committee of the party's politburo, the most powerful sub-committee in China. To one side was grouped the grieving Deng clan, including his wife and five children, sobbing as they bade farewell to a relative, and perhaps also shedding a tear for their lost status as the first family.

Arranged behind were about a hundred party and government elders, the remnants of the Long March generation such as Yang Shangkun and Bo Yibo, still very much alive as political wheeler-dealers. And all around were the state television cameras and photographers, failing to keep out of each other's way as they recorded for posterity this media show of unity.

The elite of Chinese politics had gathered at the military hospital to pay their last respects before Mr Deng was cremated. They bowed the traditional three times and then circled the corpse led by Mr Jiang, Mr Deng's hand- picked successor.

In such politically-charged environments, politburo standing committee members do not weep. They stare steadfastly at their dead mentor, avoiding eye contact with the living. These are the men (for there are few female faces) on whom the future political stability of China country depends, and who will play out their individual political ambitions in the months to come.

For Mr Deng there was just one last indignity. Transferred to a glass- topped coffin, he was then loaded into the hearse - a white and blue windowless "Coaster" minibus ill-befitting a late emperor. As the funeral convoy made its way along the Avenue of Eternal Peace to the Babaoshan cemetery and crematorium, an estimated 100,000 people lined the route. Many thousands had been bused in from nearby factories and universities, each wearing identical white paper flowers, but many more appeared to have come of their own volition.

In contrast to the emotion-choked mourners who were bused in past the police cordons and then featured on state-run television's saturation coverage of the ceremony, the crowds lining the streets were less demonstrative. They were also less well-informed about how the morning's events were due to unfold. Indeed, confusion reigned among those gathered outside about when, or even whether, the cortege would be passing by.

In what is perhaps an apt metaphor for China as a whole at this tender juncture, the curious onlookers seemed only to know that the great man had died, that his demise has occasioned a good deal of bustle, and that they might or might not, from where they stood, be able to observe it directly.

Clearly, they wanted to. "I want to pay my respects. Deng Xiaoping is the greatest figure in China's modern history, and I just feel I want to be here," said a woman in her thirties in a comment that echoed the sentiments of many.

Absent, however, was any sense that high political stakes are in play. There is among Peking residents a fair diversity of opinions about the prospects for Jiang Zemin's long-term survival as China's leader, but few who believe that the system itself might change as a result of his replacement by any of his known contenders who are, after all, cut from essentially the same cloth.

"The framework of economic reforms left behind by Deng Xiaoping is going to be followed. Everyone knows this, and it is only a matter of how fast or how slow," said a Peking academicwho specialises in Taiwanese affairs.

Regardless of whether such certainty is justified, it marks a sharp contrast with China's reaction to the death in early 1976 of Premier Zhou Enlai. For many of the Peking residents old enough to remember it, thoughts turned repeatedly to the day his corpse was transported to the same cemetery.

"I was standing on the Avenue of Eternal Peace for Zhou Enlai also, and the feeling was very different. There was such pressure then to oppose the Gang of Four, who were in control, and there were very few ways to express dissatisfaction," said a man in his seventies, retired as an editor with the state-run Xinhua news agency.

"Now there seems to be no kind of struggle like that, and so people are just here to pay their respects."

Some of those too young to remember such times, however, reacted more cynically to the whole affair. Precisely 12 hours after Deng's cremation, a young waitress could not keep from talking back to the most demonstrative of the mourners seen sobbing on the television in her noodle shop near the Peking train station.

"What are you crying about, granny? My, but all the noble people come out when something like this happens!" said the 19-year-old migrant from Anhui province.

In the private hall of the cemetery, the family bade their final farewells. "Papa is not dead," wailed the Mr Deng's youngest daughter, Deng Rong.

Today will be the official memorial service for 10,000 invited officials in the Great Hall of the People. Just next door, in Tiananmen Square, stands the vast mausoleum which houses Chairman Mao's increasingly waxy- looking corpse. The first few years of the post-Deng era may decide just how long it must be before the Great Helmsman can finally be given a dignified burial.