Relief at Chinese nuclear explosion

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WITH Hong Kong's rumour mill working overtime, Sinologists and stockbrokers were braced yesterday for an 'important' statement from Peking, fearing the death might be announced of China's ailing paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Instead, it concerned China's decision to press ahead with an underground nuclear test.

By the time the Foreign Ministry made its announcement, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index had seen a morning collapse of nearly 260 points, the culmination of a week's rumours about 89-year-old Mr Deng. After lunch, with nothing to substantiate the stories, and with Peking insisting that Mr Deng was 'in good health', the market recovered. Confirmation of a nuclear explosion was received with positive relief.

The underground test at the Lop Nor site in the far west of China was the first since last October, but Western diplomats expect several more this year. China has refused to join an informal international moratorium on testing, and wants to complete its test programme before a global test ban treaty comes into effect, probably in 1996. China argues it has 'exercised great restraint', conducting the fewest tests of any other nuclear power, and only one test for every 25 by the US.

The opaque nature of Chinese power politics, and the impossibility of confirming rumours such as the one about Mr Deng, is all grist to the mill. Yesterday there were also reports that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, is likely to resign next year. Sing Tao newspaper in Hong Kong said the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, would strengthen his control of the Foreign Ministry by appointing his close associate, Luo Gan.

Mr Qian is seen as a reformist, while Mr Luo, secretary-general at the State Council, was described by the newspaper as Mr Li's 'most indispensable assistant'. With recurrent reports of Mr Deng's failing health, Mr Li and other possible successors seek to bolster their positions and alliances before the power struggle begins.