Post-Deng talk breaks taboo

Peking (Reuter) - An influential newspaper has set the Chinese capital abuzz by printing the long-taboo words "after Deng Xiaoping" in a front-page story. Officials and analysts said the appearance of the phrase in last Friday's Reference News showed that the Communist government was preparing the public for the 90-year-old patriarch's death.

"This is a very clear and important signal," a government official said. "The central government is clearly hoping to ease the Chinese public into the post-Deng period."

Reference News, sold at many news-stands despite being a secret "internal publication", is a daily compilation of foreign news reports, many about China, prepared by the official Xinhua news agency for government officials. By many accounts, including those of Deng's daughter, Deng Rong, and a doctor, Wu Jieping, the health of the "chief architect" of China's market reforms has declined, fanning speculation that he may be near death.

Many Chinese say they are fascinated and frightened by the approach of what is widely seen as the death of an emperor, which could trigger a power struggle in China's leadership.

Reference News appeared to be trying to calm fears of post-Deng instability. "This is highly unusual, but it is not the first time," said a Peking resident who, like thousands of Chinese intellectuals, pores over Reference News every day for shifts in China's political winds. "This shows that the preparations [for Mr Deng's death] are basically complete."