Videotape epic reels out intimations of mortality for `excellent' Comrade Deng

There was just one thing missing. Twelve-hour-long television episodes on the life of Deng Xiaoping ended last night - with no new footage of the 92-year-old patriarch himself.

As propaganda, the fact that no recent film or photographs were included is bound to rekindle speculation about the health of the man who 17 years ago launched China's economic reform and opening up. Last week the foreign ministry spokesman repeated the standard official formula: "For an old man, he is doing relatively well." Not well enough for the cameras, however. The most recent picture shown was a previously published photograph of Mr Deng privately watching the 1 October 1994 National Day celebrations. This time film footage of fireworks had been superimposed on the image to liven things up.

Why then, did Peking broadcast this epic just now? Despite reminders about Mr Deng's mortality, the official message is clear for the 200-odd million Chinese reportedly glued to their sets nightly since 1 January. The Communist Party's version of Mr Deng's life is supposed to underscore its own claim to legitimacy.

In particular, the film sets the mood for 1997, which the leadership has deemed doubly significant, because of the return of Hong Kong on 1 July and the party congress in the autumn.

The specific beneficiary of this effort is President Jiang Zemin, repeatedly featured in the series as the man to whom Mr Deng handed the baton at the end of the 1980s. Mr Jiang wound up the series last night with his verdict: "Comrade Deng is really an excellent Marxist and a firm Communist."

Few would deny, on the evidence of the footage, that he had more charisma than all the present politburo combined. There were the well-known images of Mr Deng's 1979 trip to America, when he donned a stetson and kissed children. And there were less familiar scenes. Thrice removed from power during party upheavals, Mr Deng told US journalists on that visit: "If there is an Olympic medal for a person who comes back to position again and again, I can get the gold."

Mr Deng can take the credit for restoring some semblance of sanity to the ideological madhouse of Mao's China and raising the living-standards of most Chinese. But, in a country where historical truth remains under firm party control, the life itself was subject to editing. The Chinese film crew recorded every site of Mr Deng's sojourn in France during in the 1920s, but there was barely any mention of his next stop, in the Soviet Union. Also written out was Mr Deng's second wife, who ran off with another Communist leader.

More tellingly, his role in the anti-rightist movement of 1957, in which tens of thousands were persecuted, was ignored. Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958-61) killed an estimated 30 million through famine, another fact not aired. Criticism of Mao's mistakes was muted, except for strident comments from the party elder Bo Yibo. Between 1956 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, China "went backwards", said Mr Bo. Mr Deng was quoted as saying the Cultural Revolution, during which he was under house arrest and then sent to Jiangxi province, was his "most painful" period. There was no real explanation of why it took two years for him to establish himself and his reform programme after the death of Mao in 1976, against the opposition of hardline leftists.

Nor was there any mention of the Democracy Wall protest movement in the Seventies. Instead, much time was spent pronouncing that market reforms could still be called socialism.

The one sensitive topic which could not be ignored was the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Footage of students in Tiananmen Square was shown briefly, and described as "an unusual political movement". No mention was made of the decision to send in the army, or the unknown numbers killed.

Mr Deng was, however, shown at length addressing party and military elders on 9 June 1989, five days after the assault, when he was trying to defend his economic-reform programme. "This storm was bound to happen sooner or later ... The basic point of reform and opening up is not wrong," he insisted.

In the end, the documentary stressed a line of descent from Mao to Mr Deng, and now to Mr Jiang - as was necessary to uphold the argument that, despite upheavals and policy reversals since 1949, the Party has a rightful claim to people's loyalty. Mr Jiang said one of Mr Deng's greatest contributions was the "correct assessment of Chairman Mao, and maintaining the historical position of Mao thought". Mr Deng himself spent most of his life trying to resist the sort of personality cult that had enveloped Mao. He is now too infirm to prevent others invoking his memory to bolster their own political ends.

Mr Deng is, however, only 170 days away from living long enough for China to regain Hong Kong. Whether he could be fit enough to visit it seems doubtful, despite a wish expressed in 1990, and broadcast on the series: "I will try to live until 1997 ... I also wish ... after China takes back Hong Kong, that I can go to Hong Kong, [when it is] our own land, walk a bit, and have a look around."

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