Stop the Presses! Deng Xiaoping Is Still Dying!

March 26, 1995|By IAN JOHNSON

Beijing -- When asked 10 years ago what he thought the biggest story in China was, the Toronto Globe and Mail's Allen Abel gave a prophetic reply: "Deng's death. That's the big event that everyone's waiting for."

Unless it happened by the time you read this article, senior leader Deng Xiaoping is still kicking. The difference between 1985 and 1995 is that the media have now become so impatient that it almost seems as if they're urging the old man to give up the ghost.

At least that's the conclusion that one might draw after watching the media's interest in Mr. Deng's health over the past few months.

About every two months, the rumor mill (usually located in Hong Kong) churns out a speculative bit of information on Mr. Deng's health, causing a chain reaction up the media ladder. The wire services, always hungry for an article to rewrite, often pick up the Hong Kong report and send it out to hundreds of media outlets.

Then, feeling that the wires have legitimized the rumor, the daily newspapers will include some of that wire copy in pieces on China's leadership.

Foreign correspondents, worried that they might miss the big story, frantically call each other, and occasionally a Chinese person as well, asking if they've heard the rumor.

Soon everyone is in on the act, churning out dreary, speculative pieces that this time Mr. Deng is really, really ill.

Based on which report you believe, Mr. Deng has Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's disease or the flu. To be safe, one can always say he has all of the above.

Sometimes, utter banalities become minor sensations. The correspondent for Der Spiegel recently interviewed one of Mr. Deng's doctors who said that a "rapid change" was possible in the 90-year-old leader's health at any time -- an understatement. Hoping to capitalize on the publicity, the magazine issued a press release about the interview, setting off a series of wire reports hinting that Mr. Deng's death was imminent.

Proving that the government is as hypersensitive about Mr. Deng as the foreign press, Der Spiegel's article was condemned by the government, and the doctor claimed he hadn't made the statement even though he had previously signed a statement attesting to its accuracy.

A few weeks earlier, a more opaque statement caused an even bigger sensation. Mr. Deng's daughter, Deng Rong (who likes to confuse people by going by two pen names, Xiao Rong and Deng Maomao) told the New York Times that her father's "health declines day by day."

Some Chinese believe that her choice of words was meant to echo her father's words. He once told an interviewer that he was naturally getting older and approaching death "day by day."

But after 10 weeks of daily deterioration, Mr. Deng seems not to have died.

Mr. Deng's tough genes seem likely to foil yet another speculative report, this one from the Wall Street Journal, which quoted an anonymous source saying he'd be dead by the end of March.

The problem with these quick-draw artists is that they obscure two important points.

One is that China is not frozen in place while everyone waits for Mr. Deng to die. China is going through enormous economic and social transformation (and even turmoil) while Mr. Deng lies on his deathbed. By waiting in Beijing for Mr. Deng to die, reporters may be missing the biggest stories.

What's also lost in the Deng death hype is that China is effectively in the post-Deng era already. Mr. Deng's death will be important, but it won't have an immediate impact on China because his absence is already a fact. The top leadership around President Jiang Zemin is already making about 99

percent of the decisions, so Mr. Deng's death will not be as dramatic as, say, a U.S. president's dying in office.

Mr. Deng's death still matters. When he finally breathes his last, enemies or even friends who -- out of fear or respect -- wouldn't have dared to move against Mr. Deng's policies and proteges may feel emboldened to do so. His reformist bent will also be missed; the current leadership is becoming progressively less interested in economic reforms.

But, sorry to say, the exact moment of Mr. Deng's death will probably be irrelevant.

Does this mean that the deathwatch is largely irrelevant? Yes.

But does it mean that the rumor mill is likely to grow tired of dreaming up new diseases and new Estimated Times of Death? Of course not. As mentioned earlier, the Deng death cycle runs in two-month cycles.

The next one is due to start any day now.

Ian Johnson is the chief of the Beijing Bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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