TV reinforces Jiang's claim to succeed Deng

Chinese state television last night broadcast the first of a 12-part series on Deng Xiaoping amid a flurry of rumours about the health of the ailing 92-year-old patriarch. The series is designed to usher in 1997 as one of the most "significant" in Chinese history, with first the return of Hong Kong on 1 July and then the full Communist Party Congress in the autumn.

Mr Deng is the architect of China's reform and opening policies which have transformed the country since 1979, and the mastermind of the negotiations with Britain for the return of Hong Kong. The first programme introduced the great man's life story with choirs singing, white doves flying, and a montage of Mr Deng's face superimposed on a panorama of Tiananmen Square with time-delay film of orange clouds racing towards the camera.

It covered the first two decades of Mr Deng's life, starting with a guided tour of the restored family home in Sichuan province. No expense was spared, including sending a film crew to France to visit the various factories and towns where Mr Deng worked as a student after arriving in Marseille in 1920. As a result of his experiences in a Toulouse steel factory, the teenager "discovered how capitalists exploited the workers", the programme said. Before long he had become a "Communist believer". As well as reinforcing the official Deng myth, the series will seek to reaffirm the position of President Jiang Zemin as the inheritor of his mantle. Early in the first episode, in a filmed interview Mr Jiang gave in 1995, he lauded Mr Deng's role in China's 20th century history. With party in-fighting subdued while Mr Deng is still alive, it is in his interests that the old man lives until the party congress, when the President aims to cement his position as leader for the post-Deng era.

Mr Deng has not been seen in public for more than three years. The state of his health is secret, but he has so far defied repeated rumours that he was at death's door. In recent days, however, such rumours have re- emerged. The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong yesterday said that on Monday night nurses had been unable to wake him for supper. He recovered consciousness later that night and was put under intensive care in his Peking house, which is fitted out like a hospital. The newspaper quoted a source close to the family as saying since early 1996 Mr Deng had experienced a "spell of unconsciousness" about once a week. The source said he had not been admitted to hospital.

Earlier this week, Sing Tao Daily in Hong Kong quoted a Peking source as saying Mr Deng's health had deteriorated and he was sent to a military hospital last week. The Apple Daily, quoting Taiwan cable television, said Mr Deng's health had worsened and he had been sent to hospital. According to Reuters, no unusual movements had been noticed near the 301 hospital where Mr Deng is usually treated.

Analysts said the government would not have scheduled the television series if it thought Mr Deng, who is believed to have Parkinson's Disease and other ailments, might not make it to the last episode.

The introduction to the television series promised "the real story" of Deng Xiaoping, which will test China's view of history. His early life is basically uncontroversial, but the propaganda departments will have had a harder time in deciding how to portray his zealous role in the 1957 anti-rightist movement, when tens of thousands were persecuted. The treatment of China's great famine and the brutal Cultural Revolution when Mr Deng was purged will also attract scrutiny.