Deng steps gingerly into Peking's new year celebration: Chinese leader's television walk-on to greet Year of the Dog reinforces health fears and speculation on succession

A FRAIL Deng Xiaoping, walking stiffly and supported by two of his daughters, appeared on Chinese state-run television last night to mark the start of the new year celebrations. It was the first time in more than a year that news film of the 89-year-old leader had been shown on television.

Mr Deng's customary Chinese New Year appearance did little, however, to dispel rumours that his health remains fragile. His voice was not broadcast and conversations with him were shown being conducted through one of his daughters, who shouted comments from officials into his left ear and then interpreted his replies. Mr Deng walked slowly, did not appear able to turn his head and his right eye looked droopy in some shots.

He was shown greeting guests at a reception in Shanghai yesterday to mark the start of the Year of the Dog. The television commentary enthus iastically described Mr Deng as 'full of vigour and sure-footed' despite some pictures showing him looking blankly into space. He looked more lively in footage filmed on a drizzly December day two months ago when he visited the new Yangpu suspension bridge in Shanghai.

So little is known by the public of Mr Deng's health that the annual television appearance is always scrutinised. Mr Deng remains the most influential power-broker in Chinese politics even though he holds no official titles except honorary head of the Chinese Bridge-playing Association. There is considerable uncertainty over which faction will emerge pre-eminent after his death.

As well as showing the paramount leader, the evening news programme featured Chen Yun, 88, the party elder behind whom hardliners group in opposition to the fast-track economic reform programme of Mr Deng. Mr Chen was quoted as saying that 'there are still quite a few difficulties and problems' in China and stressed the need for strong central government.

Strong central government was in force last night in Peking where, along with 22 other cities, the Chinese New Year was welcomed without the traditional midnight fireworks to frighten off evil spirits. Peking banned fireworks last December on safety grounds and thousands of anti-firework patrols have been on the streets.

Chinese New Year is a family occasion when relatives gather at home for a large banquet but in previous years, for 30 minutes after midnight, Peking has let go its frustrations, with fireworks lighting up the urban skyline.

Last night the emphasis was instead on watching television. A tacit agreement between the China Central Television Station and Peking Television Station to alternate their gala shows has been scrapped in the competitive world of a reforming China and both were vying for viewers with variety shows last night. For those with the stamina, in the next four days there will be 24-hour broadcasting on two channels including 30 evening gala shows.

Man's best friend has little to look forward to in the Year of the Dog. In the cities, pedigree dogs are now status symbols and sell for hundreds of pounds, but the authorities are now cracking down on people owning pets. In the south, dogs face a more grisly end. Dog-meat remains a common foodstuff. The traditional belief is that it should be eaten in winter in order to keep warm.

(Photograph omitted)