IT was Deng Xiaoping's second daughter who once wryly remarked that an old Chinese proverb held that 'the fatter the pig, the better the chances that it will end up in the stew pot'. Deng Rong, who has acted as Mr Deng's 'imperial lip reader' since 1989, knows that the death of her father could bring disaster on the Deng clan. In communist China, as in imperial times, the fortunes of the children are tied to the political star of their progenitor. In ancient times, aspirants to the throne would massacre the relatives of the previous emperor to the fourth degree. In the communist era, when Mr Deng fell from power, his children became victims too. Mr Deng's first-born, Deng Pufang, was pushed, or fell, from a third-floor dormitory window at the Beijing University to become a paraplegic. Now, as Mr Deng's appointed successor Jiang Zemin struggles to establish his grip on power, the rumours of threats to Mr Deng's children are multiplying. His favourite son, Deng Zhifang, is said to be a victim of Mr Jiang's anti-corruption purge; his wife Zhuo Lin is said to have attempted suicide; his niece, Ding Peng, stands accused of gross fraud in Shenzhen; and a few months ago Deng Rong was severely reprimanded for talking too loosely about her father's health and speculating about the reversal of the verdict on the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. This is not the first time that political power plays have been linked to investigations into activities of the Deng children. More than six years ago Mr Deng's grip on power was thought to be slackening when the State Council closed down the huge Kanghua conglomerate which was operating under the aegis of Deng Pufang's China Welfare Fund. The rumours are based on the assumption that Mr Deng's children are untouchable as long as he holds power. Therefore if low-ranking officials dare to touch them, it must follow that Mr Deng has lost power. The only authority for such actions could come from Mr Jiang alone. This makes some political logic. To hold power, Mr Jiang must distance himself from his patron and show that he commands fear and respect in his own right. Like all the other privileged children of China's elite, the Deng offspring are caught up in China's enterprise culture. Mr Jiang could show that he wants to clean up the corruption of Deng's China by arresting them. Then he would have the rest of the elite 'by the pigtails'. Their children have all behaved in pretty much the same way as Mr Deng's, so they would all be equally vulnerable to investigation. Western diplomats find it hard to believe that Mr Jiang, the portly figure they meet at receptions could be so ruthless. But if Mr Jiang is plotting such a strategy, it will be a sad and cruel way of bringing down the curtain on the Deng era. The 90-year-old patriarch is very much different from Mao Zedong. Mr Deng has been anxious to present himself as a normal family man. He repeatedly ordered the media to show him at family gatherings surrounded by his children and grandchildren. As many as 18 of them would reportedly sit down to dinner together. By contrast, Mao made it public policy to destroy the family as the foundation of Chinese society. Children who betrayed their parents to the authorities were held up as models. Mao also deliberately, or inadvertently, tried to turn Mr Deng's children against their father. Several became Red Guards and may have condemned their father. As with so many families of rich and poor in China, the Cultural Revolution was devastating. Deng Pufang was hopelessly crippled. Deng Zhifang was sent off as an educated youth to labour in Shaanxi. So was Deng Nan who, like other city children, married a peasant and might have been fated to spend the rest of her life in the fields. Despite the separations and hardships, the family stuck together and the children pursued their own careers, largely outside the Communist Party. Deng Nan studied physics and became a vice-minister in the State Science and Technology Commission and is now deputy director of the State Science Commission. The commission has been the employer of several 'princelings'. In the summer of 1993, when the vice-minister of the commission, Li Xiaoshi, faced criminal charges (and was later prosecuted and sentenced to death in connection with the Great Wall Electronics bond fraud), there was some talk that Deng Nan might have been involved. But she was never implicated in the official investigation. Deng Nan had three children by her uneducated husband, He Ping. He had earlier worked as a director of the Armament Department of the People's Liberation Army. Mr He is now the general manager of Polytechnologies, one of the largest military companies in China. Deng Lin, the eldest daughter, became a painter but more recently has been at her father's side. It is not known what her husband does. Deng Rong, the youngest daughter and known as Mao Mao, accompanied her husband to a posting at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. She is the most elegant and cosmopolitan of the daughters. She recently travelled the world promoting her biography of her father and in 1992 was at his side during his important southern tour. She has also become involved in property ventures in Shenzhen. She is chairman of the Shenzhen Surpass Industry Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Beijing Surpass Industry Corporation under the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council. Mao Mao's husband, Wu Jianchang, is the chairman of China National Non-Ferrous Metals Industrial Corp, a company that operates under the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation. Deng Pufang has devoted himself to helping China's handicapped and set up a welfare fund in 1984. The second son, Deng Zhifang, followed the classic route of China's princelings. He studied physics at Rochester University in the United States with his wife Xiaoyuan. A son born there was given American citizenship. On his return he plunged into business, working at China International Trust and Investment Corporation. He is now director of two Hong Kong-listed companies: Shougang Concord Grand and Hoi Sing Holdings. He is a close associate of Zhou Beifang, the disgraced former chief of Shougang Holdings (Hong Kong). Zhou is being held on corruption charges and his father, Zhou Guanwu, resigned from the chairmanship of the largest steel manufacturing group in China. Deng Zhifang also founded and is the general manager of Shanghai Grand Development Company, a real estate firm with projects up and down China's eastern coast. He is also linked in business ventures with Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Holdings. In the 1980s most speculation centred on enterprises associated with Deng Pufang's Kanghua Industrial Corporation, which was eventually stripped of its tax-free status and other privileges. Most recently attention has focused on Deng Zhifang, but he has denied he is under investigation. Sources close to the family say that Zhou Beifang has implicated the younger Deng in an effort to save his own neck, believing that the Dengs remain untouchable. While Mr Deng is said to be upset over the implications, he claims he has not done anything wrong and therefore has nothing to worry about. While many of the Deng family members and in-laws hold prominent business positions in major companies they are far more subtle than some of their princeling counterparts with similar jobs. Most people say that the effort to maintain anonymity is intentional. 'They don't want to attract more attention to themselves, being members of China's first family involves a great deal of pressure,' said a family friend. But given their high-level positions they would be likely targets in a political campaign following Mr Deng's death. Another case now under investigation involves a Deng family associate, Ding Peng, who is alleged to be involved in a massive scam in Shenzhen. She is not a member of Mr Deng's immediate family but the daughter of Deng Ken, Deng Xiaoping's younger brother, who finished his career as deputy mayor of Wuhan in the 1970s.