The demise of the Long March veteran, spiritual leader of hardliners opposed to the fast pace of Mr Deng's economic reforms, may weaken his protgs in the succession struggle which is sure to break out when China's "Little Emperor", who will be 91 in August, goes. Most affected may be the Prime Minister, Li Peng, who favours the Chen faction.
As one of China's so-called Immortals and author of "birdcage" economics, Chen was second only to Mr Deng in political power among the party elders, and was the paramount leader's main rival in the struggle over economic direction after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The order of the two men's deaths had always been considered of great potential importance for the balance of power between hardliners and reformers, especially if Chen had outlived his rival. However, the sharp deterioration of both men's health over the past year has probably lessened the impact of Chen's departure.
After months of rumours that Mr Deng is fading fast, Chen's death has heightened Chinese superstitions that 1995 will be a pivotal year for the country. It is the first lunar "leap year" since 1976, when Mao Tse- tung died. And as many Chinese pointed out, Mao's death was preceded by that of Chou En-lai.
Chen died in a Peking hospital on Monday afternoon. He was believed to have suffered from leukaemia. Although not well known in the West, Chen's stature rivalled that of Mr Deng and since the mid-Eighties he had provided an alternative ideological focus for the conservative party faction. Chen's relationship with Mr Deng was complicated but for much of the seven decades in the party, they were allies.
A former Shanghai typesetter, Chen joined the Communist Party in 1924. By the 1949 Communist victory he was considered the party's leading economic planner and was responsible for the first Five Year Plan.
Although a firm Marxist, he was by the mid-Fifties articulating the need for incentives to persuade peasants to produce more. He strongly opposed Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward and in the early Sixties, when the country was emerging from famine, he recommended that land should be returned to peasants.It was an idea that would be echoed in Mr Deng's reform programme nearly two decades later.
In the initial years, Chen backed the Deng reforms, but their views started to differ from the mid- Eighties.
Chen compared the economy to a caged bird. "It should be allowed to fly, but only in the cage," he wrote. In other words, any free-market reforms should be confined within a planned economy.
As head of the party's Central Advisory Commission, a pasture for retired elders, Chen remained immensely powerful. In 1988, with inflation high, he strongly backed an economic austerity programme which put the reformers on the defensive, sowing the seeds for the downfall of the reformist party chief, Zhao Ziyang.
When pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Peking in 1989, Chen was in no doubt: "We must never make concessions," he thundered. In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, reform was put on hold and only since Mr Deng's visit to the south in 1992 have the reformists regained the upper hand. Since then, China boasts the world's fastest-growing economy, but it is one the government has found increasingly difficult to control.
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