CHEN Yun will be remembered as a Long March veteran, as a cautious leader who opposed the madness of the Great Leap Forward and the cynicism of the Cultural Revolution and as a founding father of modern China.
But for now, his death is assessed primarily in terms of what it means for succession to the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. If there were any doubt that Chen's death was primarily a political event, it was dispelled by Xinhua (the New China News Agency), which took more than 28 hours to release an obituary for the 90-year-old, who is believed to have been near death for months.
'We must turn our pain into strength and closely unite around the central committee with Jiang Zemin at the core. Chen played an important role in major decisions for a smooth transition,' Xinhua said in an attempt to buttress the position of President Jiang and his associates. It is a measure of the partial failure of Chen's generation of leaders that his death was demeaned in this way.
It is easy to overlook the idealism of the early leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, who risked torture and death to free the Chinese people and to make China great. The standard of living of peasants and city-dwellers in much of China bears testimony to how much has been achieved. It is unfortunate that those achievements were made only after 40 years of ideological excesses and power struggles.
China's current economic strength is ultimate testimony to the achievements of the Long March generation of leaders - particularly Deng Xiaoping - but the reaction to Chen's death is a reminder of the distance the country has yet to travel before it reaches political maturity. The future of 1.2 billion people is too important to be decided by the health of ageing men such as Mr Deng, no matter how great their contribution to China.
Chen was not known as an enthusiastic supporter of Mr Deng's reforms, and a fair evaluation of his contribution will probably have to wait until Beijing becomes a little less coy about policy debates among senior leaders. China must develop a political system that encourages ability and rewards achievement, rather than one that encourages patronage and rewards subservience. So long as natural deaths remain political events in China, the country is unlikely to fulfil its potential.