President Jiang Zemin, the man who has ostensibly been in charge since Mr Deng was last seen in public three years ago, must be thinking that his mentor might have timed his death with a little more care. China is only two weeks into the new Year of the Ox, and for the superstitious any unfortunate event before tonight's full moon represents a bad omen for the year. More practically for Mr Jiang, whose priority for the immediate future is maintaining social stability, is the fact that during the Chinese New Year period, up to 90 million floating workers are on the move as they travel back to work after the country's most important public holiday. Security will be extra tight over the next few weeks.
Mr Jiang and his colleagues had been gearing up for world attention to focus on China in 1997, but for rather different reasons. The annual gathering of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, will convene in Peking a week on Saturday; and this year's meeting of the rubber-stamp body was supposed to be a celebration of the final countdown to Hong Kong's return to the motherland. Instead, it will now be dominated by public tributes to Mr Deng, and a private scramble by top leaders to establish their leadership positions.
China's nationalistic run-up to the July 1 Hong Kong transition will be overshadowed by the uncertainty felt by the rest of the world over China's political stability in the post-Deng era. It probably will not be until this autumn's full Chinese Communist Party Congress, held only once every five years, that the shape of the new top leadership grouping starts to fall into place. Even before Mr Deng's departure, this was the congress that Mr Jiang hoped would put the seal on his status as Mr Deng's official heir. Mr Jiang - who is also party chief and head of the army - will have to do some deft political manoeuvring as he seeks to keep the support of key personalities and the military. The Congress must establish, for instance, who will take over as prime minister when Li Peng finishes his second term in March 1998.
If Mr Jiang emerges secure after the Congress, as most analysts at the moment believe he can, he will claim his diplomatic prize of the year - a summit meeting with President Clinton, probably in Washington. And if all goes according to plan, China's year will wind up with the last of the already officially-designated "important events" of 1997, the diversion of the Yangtze River for the Three Gorges Dam project.
China may be able to change the course of one of the world's great waterways, but will it for the first time be able to secure a smooth succession of political power? When Chairman Mao died at the end of the Cultural Revolution's 10-year devastation, it needed the army to propel Mr Deng to paramount leader status. "I think the situation now is totally different," says a senior Western diplomat in Peking. "When Mao died we were at the end of an unprecedentedly negative decade, one of enormous chaos, huge suffering, political exhaustion. It's different now. There are huge numbers of problems in China but we are not in that kind of situation at all. There is a consensus, with qualifications, on which way China is headed. There is a consensus that economic reform has been right. And that there isn't really a proper alternative to that." Nor is there any obvious alternative as "core" leader to the uncharismatic Mr Jiang. At the moment there are no evident rivals for the top job.
Whatever the efforts of the propaganda machine, 70-year-old Mr Jiang was never going to be a patriarch in the same mould as Mao and Deng. Born in Jiangsu province and trained in the Soviet Union, he rose steadily through the party ranks in the Shanghai municipality before he was unexpectedly elevated to Communist Party chief in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He was a compromise figure whose main claim to promotion was that no one objected strongly enough to him.
From this unpromising start, Mr Deng's protracted decline has allowed the president time to establish some sort of power base. He has also over the past year sought to put his own mark on Chinese politics with a much- vaunted campaign to create a "spiritual civilisation", an elusive concept in China's get-rich-quick society.
Mr Jiang's political flair may be limited, but he has one strong card in his hand. China's senior leaders know that a destabilising power struggle would only weaken the hold of the Communist Party. To borrow from Benjamin Franklin, albeit talking of a very different matter, Mr Jiang and his colleagues might observe the dictum: "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
If China is to have a "core" leader rather than an emperor, the most pressing question is whether the lacklustre Mr Jiang can steer the country through the next stage of reform and deal with the inherent contradictions of the "socialist market economy" bequeathed by Mr Deng. China's economy may have been transformed, but its politics are as strange as ever. What other major country in the world these days would have a question mark hanging over it because of the death of a 92-year-old man who had not been seen in public since 1994, and who had been too frail for months, possibly years, to wield any direct influence?
It is symptomatic of today's China that while Chinese officials were maintaining until the end that Mr Deng's health had seen "no great change", with hindsight the first official indication that his condition was severe was a front-page report in the country's main stock-market newspaper saying that a meeting of top leaders had been held on Tuesday in Peking "to study Deng's economic theories". The message was: we are not telling anyone about Mr Deng's condition, but share-trading is OK.
The first public announcement following confirmation of Mr Deng's death illustrated the enduring Communist approach to collective decision-making. A total of 459 officials were appointed to the funeral committee, with Mr Jiang as chairman. The committee's first decree was that no foreign dignitaries and no foreign media will attend the funeral and mourning ceremonies.
In such a secret and opaque political system, an individual's political clout has more to do with personal prestige than any job title. In early 1992, for instance, two years after his formal retirement, Mr Deng quietly thwarted hardliner attempts to stifle his economic reforms by embarking on his "southern tour", thus kick-starting a new economic boom. An unpublicised trip by an old man without any formal position was what defined China's subsequent policy direction.
It is personal prestige which Mr Jiang so sorely lacks, despite his tendency to break into song when meeting other heads of state. Yet it is his government which must now grapple with China's main problems, such as rising unemployment, venal corruption, a state sector where nearly half the enterprises are losing money, and an increasing inability to impose central control on China's provinces.
To date, there has been much more talk than action on all these fronts because of the policy-making paralysis during Mr Deng's protracted decline. Now that the post-Deng era has arrived, will this hiatus be resolved so that China can move definitively into the second stage of economic reform, a transition which will prove much more painful than the paradigm shift engineered by Mr Deng? Perhaps the most worrying prospect for this year is not so much an overt power struggle, but that political jockeying for position behind the scenes means that serious policy-making is again put on hold. Urgent decisions, for example on bankrupt state enterprises, will be left on the back-burner because the political risk of tackling them is too high.
At the moment, Mr Jiang has macro-economics on his side; this year China's economic growth is forecast at 10.5 per cent, while inflation remains around 6 per cent, statistics which help cushion the blow of massive state enterprise redundancies. The real challenge to Communist Party rule may come when political repression is accompanied by China's next cyclical economic downturn.
With all China's dissidents and pro-democracy activists firmly behind bars, the chances in the short term of protest from below achieving real political change seem remote. The brutal truth is that persecuted mainland dissidents count for much more abroad than they do with the bulk of the population, who tend to view them as fighting a hopeless cause. Given the controlled official media and education system, Chinese who are angry about corruption and wilful officials rarely make the connection with the need for public accountability. China's progression to a more open political system probably depends on the new cohort of younger bureaucrats, many with Western training, who are making their way up the ministries. But even they talk more about improving the rule of law than the prospect of Western-style democracy, ignoring any possible link.
In terms of personal freedom, the Deng reform programme did a great deal to reduce the party's control over people's lives. But next weekend's National People's Congress, when hundreds of hand-picked trusties descend on the capital to vote through the party's legislative agenda, is a sharp reminder of just how Peking still views the idea of representative government.
Despite this control - or should that be because of it? - the Communist Party is left with the problem of securing a smooth political transition within the closed political system. Mr Jiang's own surprise promotion in 1989 illustrates the point. Plucked from relative political mediocrity, he was catapulted to high leadership precisely because he lacked a defining political vision.
In Chinese official jargon, Mao was the "first generation" leader, Deng led the "second generation", and Mr Jiang is at the core of the "third generation". So who then are the "fourth generation" leadership candidates, given that Mr Jiang is already 70 years old? There are none, and such inquiries are off-limits while so much emphasis is being placed on bolstering the present leadership. But this is China's real succession question, and one which will determine how the world's largest country develops in the 21st century. On past performance, it could be well into the next century before that tricky personnel problem is resolved. The odds are that it will not be decided by universal suffrage.