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Deng looks to 'paramount daughters' for support: As China's fast failing leader clings on to power, his two daughters take full advantage of their privileged positions, reports Teresa Poole in Peking

LIKE keepers of the Emperor, they shepherd his every movement. When China's ailing paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, appeared on state television earlier this month for the first time in more than a year, the two 'paramount daughters' were beside him every step.

At his left side, shouting into his good ear, Deng Rong was shown relaying comments for him at a suitable decibel level, and then interpreting her father's incomprehensible replies for wider consumption. On Deng's right-hand side, Deng Nan offered a steadying touch when he reached out to shake hands with senior officials. On the footage that was broadcast, the 89-year-old man never walked without a supporting arm from one or both women.

In China's opaque political system, Lunar New Year is when Deng offers the Chinese people annual proof that he is still functioning. This year, as Deng was shown staring vacantly into space, the lasting impression was of an alarmingly frail old man, whose powers of concentration have lapsed considerably over the past year, and whose daughters have become the paramount gatekeepers.

'They certainly restrict access,' said one Western diplomat in Peking. 'People are having to court the family to raise issues with him or seek his approval. It is quite possible they also put out things in his name.'

'The key question,' said another diplomat, 'is to what extent he is still lucid. Not even the full Politburo knows that.' The obvious parallel is with Mao Tse-tung's last months, when two female assistants translated his slurred words, with considerable leeway for manipulation by Madame Mao.

Deng Rong, born in 1950, is Deng's youngest daughter and has been his personal secretary since 1989. She is said to control all access to her father, as well as deciphering his heavy Sichuan accent. Writing under her nickname, Maomao, Deng Rong is also well on her way to becoming one of the world's best-selling authors; the first volume of her biography of Deng has sold more than 20 million copies. She is now at work on the second volume, which will also be required reading for the party faithful.

Deng Nan, a year older, is less high profile than her sister but these days is also in attendance when Deng ventures into public. Back in January 1992, the two women accompanied Deng on his pivotal visit to the South of China when he relaunched the reformers' push for faster economic reform. At the time, Deng Nan was thought to have helped write his key speeches, taken as the official go-ahead for speedier economic growth.

Two years on, it is harder to square the recent pictures of the tiny, ill old man with the view that he remains the most powerful person in China. But his influence exceeds his faculties, for instance as when a new collection of his speeches was published last Autumn. 'With Deng, as long as he exists, he is out there. He is still paramount leader in the sense that it is still his push that is guiding the system,' the diplomat said.

Analysts believe texts of important documents are still run by him. It is thought that he is much more alert some days than others.

Deng Rong's influence is said to be on the side of more liberal reformists. Hong Kong Chinese newspapers suggested she was instrumental in persuading Deng to agree the early release of the dissident, Wei Jingsheng, last September just before the Olympics 2000 decision, convincing him that it would be good public relations for China. She is also the only member of the family who might seek a political role after her father's death; she is a member of the National People's Congress.

But in the factional fighting within the Chinese Communist Party that is likely to follow Deng's death, his children are not expected to play a key part. 'I do not think they would have much of a role. I think they are under no illusions about what will happen after Deng dies. So they are furthering their interests now,' the Western diplomat said. 'I think they are using the fact that they are able to control access to their own advantage, knowing that those days are numbered.'

(Photograph omitted)