Deng on his deathbed Reports and rumors: China awaits the next transition at the top.

February 19, 1997

THE WORLD watches the deathbed -- if such it is -- of a 92-year-old man who has held no office since 1990 and not been seen in public for three years. China's President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng rushed back to Beijing. Word went out unofficially -- officially denied -- that Deng Xiaoping, the Great Architect, was failing. A Hong Kong newspaper said he had a massive stroke.

Perhaps he did. Stocks dipped on the Hong Kong stock exchange and plummeted on two little stock exchanges inside China. Everyone wondered. What would it mean?

On the surface, nothing. Jiang Zemin was his choice as heir, is the top power figure and holds the offices of state, party and military that consolidated power for the late Mao Tse-tung. If there is to be a power struggle, it has been going on and Jiang Zemin has been winning.

But personality is not the point. Policy is. The edifice that made Deng Xiaoping the Great Architect was once denounced as the Capitalist Road in the Mao era. This has made the once-starving China not only the most populous country but the most rapidly growing economy. Its southeast coast is booming and boasts a burgeoning harvest of millionaires.

That's not the whole plan. A Communist Party monopoly of political power and a strong army are equal parts. As a victim of Mao Tse-tung's Great Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping learned to abhor anarchy, violence, iconoclasm, disrespect and disorder. He willed the crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square eight years ago. In the Great Architect's edifice, no political freedom adjoins economic freedom. Some say that can't work in the long run. In the short run, it does.

So the question after Deng Xiaoping departs will be how China may change. There are forces that would roll back the capitalist road, fearing its inevitable destination at political upheaval. Others would make concessions to free speech and cultural freedom for minorities. While Mr. Deng breathes, all lay low.

Immediately after Mr. Deng's departure, Jiang Zemin is likely to remain head of everything. But then questions will arise and eyes will be watching the every move of rival Li Peng. And that watchful waiting will go on and on.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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