Uncertainty gnaws China as Year of the Rat dawns

TERESA POOLE

PEKING

Will he, won't he? For the first time in recent years, no one in China expects to see Deng Xiaoping on the television news tomorrow, the eve of the Chinese New Year. Last year's guessing game, which ended in his first non-appearance, means the suspense has gone out of the New Year ritual of gauging the declining health of the paramount leader, now 91.

Other customs, however, are still going strong as China prepares to usher in the Year of the Rat. The railways are groaning as the world's biggest annual migration of people gets under way; officials expect at least 143 million passengers during the 50-day peak travelling period. The Civil Aviation Administration has added an extra 3,600 flights because so many more people can now afford to let the plane take the strain.

Families will reunite for the evening and make the indispensable festive dumplings. After that, it will be time for the nation's favourite leisure activity; China Central Television officials are confidently predicting that their New Year's Eve variety shows will attract an audience of 800 million.

In Hong Kong, the feng shui (soothsayers) are urging caution. The rat is crafty and in the fabled race of the animals, it hitched a lift on the ox, only to jump off at the last moment and dash first across the finishing line. The Credit Lyonnais Securities (Asia) annual feng shui outlook said: "The Year of the Rat will generally not be a good one. The theme that repeatedly comes up is a warning that things will be worse than they really look."

The Year of the Rat poses all sorts of questions for China. For RAT, one can in the first instance read "Rage Against Taiwan". In his address to the nation last New Year's eve, President Jiang Zemin unveiled his "eight-point plan" for peaceful reunification. This New Year is instead set to open with another round of provocative war-games by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the Taiwan Strait, before the 23 March presidential elections in Taiwan.

At home, political uncertainties persist. Mr Deng has outlived myriad forecasts of his imminent death but the Year of the Rat is expected to be the first in which he is no longer a real factor in policy-making. Apart from being too ill to be shown on television, no one outside the inner circle can be sure just how frail he is. But few analysts believe he carries much direct influence. In a country which sets great store by symbols, Mr Deng's name was conspicuously missing from the list of senior leaders last week paying or sending respects to a murdered senior parliamentary official, Li Peiyao.

For Mr Jiang - the designated "core" of the new generation of leaders - it is now the timing of Mr Deng's departure which matters most. The longer he lives, the greater opportunity for the heir apparent to secure his position. The one reference last week in the official media to Mr Deng was a full-page spread in the Worker's Daily headlined "My greatest hope is to live until 1997", an old quote by Mr Deng referring to the return of Hong Kong to China next year. Mr Jiang must share the old man's wishes.

This weekend, the Xinhua news agency will no doubt report that the "collective leadership" has conveyed seasonal greetings to the patriarch.

But in everyday politics the post-Deng era has begun. Mr Jiang has again been putting his mark on the country's top line-up.

The governors of Guangdong and Sichuan provinces have been replaced by younger, pro-Jiang figures. Earlier this month, the President promoted four more newgenerals in the PLA, the latest move to boost his military support.

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