What will life be like after Deng?
AS CHINA, in the new year, confidently goes about the business of becoming prosperous - signing joint ventures, stuffing red envelopes, seeking out new markets abroad - its people will be waiting for that telltale music, the suddenly omnipresent dirge thatmeans someone important has died.
They will stop whatever they are doing, hold their breath, and listen for the name.
It might be any of the six remaining ''eight immortals'', Long March veterans whose revolutionary careers stretch back almost 75 years, and who came together one last time in 1989 to impose their collective will on the Chinese people.
Perhaps it will be Mr Chen Yun, the staunch advocate of central planning criticised as a ''rightist'' before the Cultural Revolution and as a ''leftist'' afterward.
Or Mr Peng Zhen, the former mayor of Beijing who used the platform of China's rubber-stamp Congress during the 1980s to rail against decadent Western ideas. It might even be Yang Shangkun, the ambitious general whose military empire-building was abruptly halted earlier this year.
A more likely candidate than the still-robust Yang, however, is China's 88-year-old ailment-prone patriarch. All the qigong masters in China cannot forever postpone the official announcement, perhaps in 1993, that ''Comrade Deng Xiaoping has left this world''.
World leaders, too, will hesitate, and along with Chinese people everywhere ask the same questions: What now? Where will China go, or where will it drift, after Deng? Will his death intensify the power struggle already in progress and strip away the veneer of collective leadership? Will it unleash instability in the cities, or in the countryside? Will it lead to a military regime, to democracy, to regionalism? Or will China, as Deng hopes, simply pause to pay its last respects and then return, tools in hand, to the business of becoming prosperous? Since returning to power in 1978, Deng Xiaoping has tried valiantly, even desperately, to lay these questions to rest before he goes, in Mao's immortal words, ''to meet Marx''.
His first two efforts to install reform-oriented successors failed dramatically. Party Chief Hu Yaobang, whose heart attack during a Politburo meeting sparked the protests that led to the June 4 massacre, was deposed by a cabal of conservative generals and orthodox communists in December 1986.
The reformist torch was then passed to Zhao Ziyang, who beat back an ideological witch hunt against ''bourgeois liberalisation'' in time to orchestrate the 13th Party Congress a year later. The ''Big 13'' was hailed in the Western press as the likely triumph of market socialism over communist ideology, but within 18 months Zhao was under arrest and his policies in ruins.
With the closing of the 14th Party Congress in October, Deng has once again laid a foundation for the perpetuation of his vision.
After a year of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying and public campaigning, he marshalled enough political support to disband the troublesome nest of retired conservatives in the Central Advisory Commission, to dismantle Yang Shangkun's far-flung fiefdom within the military, and to catapult two young, hot-blooded reformers on to the Standing Committee of the Communist Party.
It was a political tour de force, perhaps the most brilliant of his career.
But the 14th Party Congress' victory, is, at its core, a hollow one. It reveals Deng's weakness as prominently as his strength. The fact an enfeebled, 88-year-old man without portfolio - except Honorary Chair of the China Bridge Association - is the reluctant, de facto ruler of the world's most populous nation does not inspire confidence in China's political institutions.
Nor does the incipient, and insipid, Cult of Deng, promoted in lifeless propaganda vehicles like the wildly unpopular song Mao Zedong Got Us to Stand on Our Own Two Feet and Deng Xiaoping Made Us Rich. If Deng felt his policies and proteges were secure, he would not risk the ridicule of history by following in Mao's self-aggrandising footsteps.
In the end, however, whether Dengism outlives Deng depends less on young turks like Mr Zhu Rongji and Mr Hu Jintao - whose weak power base exposes them to counterattack by surviving ideologues and their clients - than it does on the technocratisation of Chinese leadership and consistent growth of the economy. These, rather than the outcome of political dogfights at the top, will determine the trajectory of China's development.
Quietly, gradually, the complexion of China's leadership has undergone a fundamental transition. Once dominated by semi- literate peasant revolutionaries suspicious of their educated colleagues, the upper echelon of the Communist Party is now staffed by technocrats with post-'49 college degrees, typically in science.
In 1982, for example, only 12 per cent of Central Committee members fit this description. After the 14th Party Congress, however, 70 per cent do. The shift during the same decade among ministers, vice-ministers, governors and provincial party secretaries is even more complete.
THESE are people who see policy issues not in terms of ideological right and wrong, but in terms of problem solving. Their influence is so pervasive, and their expertise so indispensable, that even if the reformist leadership were swept away in the wake ofDeng's death, old guard Marxists could not purge too deeply without severe economic repercussions.
An even more important bulkhead against a reversal of market- and trade-oriented reforms is the continuing growth of the economy. Statistically, China's 14-year boom is one of the economic success stories of the century. It has lifted 100 million people from dire poverty, and tens of millions into relative affluence.
Productivity and output have continued to rise in agriculture, where reforms began, and have gone through the roof in the non-state industrial sector since 1985. Indeed, 1993 will be the year in which the value of industrial output outside the state sector will surpass that of the red-ink behemoths spawned by socialism.
Fledging stock and real estate markets, along with the ongoing explosion in largely unregulated rural industry, have pushed China further down the one-way road of capitalism development. Two-way trade has increased five-fold in 10 years to US$170 billion (about HK$1.3 trillion), a good chunk of it in surplus. Foreign reserves stand at a healthy US$50 billion.
To a large extent, these trends have acquired a momentum independent of palace politics in Beijing. If they continue unabated, any intra-Party back-stabbing after Deng passes on will probably not derail reforms. Invoking his guiding spirit, Deng's successors will continue to restructure the economy, join GATT, and try to turn China into the world's largest exporter within their lifetime. At its current growth rate, China could be one of the two or three largest economies in the world by the year 2015.
This, then, is Deng's scenario for China: a thriving, export-driven economy ruled by a revitalised Communist Party staffed by technocrats and protected by a lean, professional army that keeps its nose and its guns out of politics.
Dissent will be held in check by economic success and the secret police. China's neighbours appreciate this scenario, and Western democracies, sadly, will tolerate it, as long as human rights abuses are not too flagrant.
If Deng's vision is more or less immune to the slings and arrows of leftist sabotage, however, it remains highly vulnerable in other ways. Indeed, any number of variables could turn Deng's dream into a nightmare.
China's economic surge has been all the more remarkable in the context of a global recession, but may not always be so impervious to market downturns. The Chinese economy is simply too big, say some, to emulate the export-dependent development patterns ofAsia's ''Four Dragons''.
With a massive labour surplus already, and more unemployment on the horizon as inefficient state-run enterprises shut their doors, a sharp retraction in China's foreign markets could have a devastating effect.
Indeed, the economy will have to maintain a breakneck pace of 10 per cent annual growth through the year 2000 simply to accommodate a non-agricultural work force that will expand by 150 to 170 million.
Failure to do so could lead to social unrest. Central Document No. 7, issued earlier this year, instructs the army to prepare for the possibility of strikes and riots. Violence against factory managers by disgruntled or laid-off workers is already common.Inflation adds to the pressure.
Nor has Deng found a way to halt the corruption which has spread throughout Chinese officialdom like a cancer. This, too, is a threat to social stability, as Deng himself told the post-June 4 leadership, correctly pointing out the massive demonstrations of April and May were protests against malfeasance as much as they were a call for democracy.
But asking party members to behave themselves, and disciplining them behind closed doors, will never solve the problem. Ironically, it is the absence of a free press and open elections that allow corruption to flourish, not, as Deng seems to think, the corrosive influence of bourgeois values.
But Deng remains steadfastly opposed to any adulteration of communist political power. ''We have absolutely no intention of practising a Western-style, multi-party system,'' intoned General- Secretary Jiang Zemin on cue in his Party Congress work report.
In the last analysis, Deng's vision is most vulnerable to its own internal contradictions. His leftist critics are right when they caution that unbridled reforms might destroy the Communist Party rather than rescue it, for that is precisely what is happening.
Deng's dilemma is also China's, for as long as the patriarch lives, so too does the irreconcilable contradiction between a free economy and a closed political system. Deng has held that tension in place by the force of his prestige and personality, but itwill erupt, sooner or later, and with full force after he dies.
But when that happens Deng will not be there to pull the pieces together again.