Today, as the infirm Mr Deng celebrates his 90th birthday, the official line is, once again, that the succession will pose no problems. Important speeches for the past 18 months have all ended with a call to unite around the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party with Mr Deng's chosen successor, President Jiang Zemin, 'at its core'. His position seems secure. President Jiang is also General Secretary of the party and, as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, in charge of the armed forces.
Yet the question most often posed about the post-Deng era concerns President Jiang's likely length of tenure. He is seen as an unimpressive figure, a compromise candidate chosen from a group of party chiefs, none of whom has yet acquired the stature of an 'emperor-in-waiting'.
'There is no one at the top who has the sort of credentials that Deng and the old leaders had,' said a Western diplomat. 'Their reputations were forged in revolution and battle, fighting the Japanese, fighting Chiang Kai-shek. The new generation does not have that heroic stature; they are more like apparatchiks.'
The fear is that Mr Deng's death could be followed by a power struggle that would divert the leadership from tackling China's economic and social problems, notably high inflation and rising unemployment. Divisions remain between hardliners and reformists over how quickly to shift to a market economy. Scrapping the old centrally planned system threatens tens of millions of state-enterprise jobs once guaranteed for life.
The opaque nature of Chinese politics forces Western observers to consider all possibilities. The diplomat explained: 'There are a huge variety of scenarios to choose from. There are plenty of people who take all the negative things, put them all together, and produce a catastrophe theory, where China is going to break up, and break down, where central government will lose its authority, and anarchy will ensue. Equally, you can construct scenarios which show an unimpeded advance towards some status as an economic superpower, earlier rather than later in the next century.'
Behind the closed gates of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Peking, jockeying for position in the post-Deng era can be a dangerous game. Mr Deng's first two chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were both reformists who fell victim to party faction-fighting in the Eighties, the latter in the wake of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. More recently, in October 1992, the then president, Yang Shangkun, and his half-brother, Yang Baibing, were abruptly sidelined on Mr Deng's orders for holding secret meetings to plan for the aftermath of the paramount leader's death.
The most common prediction among China-watchers is for the present leadership line-up, headed by President Jiang, to hold on to power for about two years. The Western diplomat said: 'I think their instinct on Deng's death will be to stick together.' After that, many expect a new paramount leader to emerge, strong enough to put his own stamp on China.
There is no front-runner for that position at present, but there are many possible candidates and power-brokers for any succession battle. They include:
President Jiang, 68, scorned by many Western diplomats who doubt his intellectual capacity and say meetings with him are undermined by his poor grasp of detail. But he could be a skilful player behind the scenes. Lacking a military background, Mr Jiang has spent the past 18 months cultivating senior ranks in the People's Liberation Army who will have an important voice in determining the succession.
The Prime Minister, Li Peng, 66, an able Soviet-trained technocrat who remains the most unpopular politician in China because of his role in the Tiananmen Square shootings. A conservative on the economy, he has had to compromise on recent policy but his warnings about the dangers of overheating have been vindicated.
Zhu Rongji, 66, a former mayor of Shanghai and now Vice-Premier in charge of the economy. A reformist, his crackdown on property speculation and ballooning credit has antagonised the fast- growing coastal regions. Mr Zhu's meteoric rise means he lacks a power-base.
Qiao Shi, 70, is widely touted as the likely kingmaker after Mr Deng's death. His former job in charge of public security means he is well-informed about his colleagues' weak spots. Despite abstaining in the 1989 vote on martial law, Mr Qiao maintains good contacts with the military . His new role as head of the National People's Congress provides a useful public platform.
Yang Shangkun, 86, former president with a revolutionary pedigree. Could re-emerge as a power-broker in the succession struggle. Has good contacts with the military and with the rich southern province of Guangdong.
Zhao Ziyang, 75, ousted as party general secretary in 1989 and has been under house arrest ever since. The architect of many key reforms in the Eighties, he is a dark horse who might re-emerge if the verdict on the Tiananmen Square 'turmoil' is reversed.
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