Viewers given glimpses of declining Deng

John Kohut

DENG Xiaoping's Spring Festival television appearance showed the senior leader to be in rapidly declining health, again raising questions about the extent to which he still runs China and fuelling speculation about how long he has to live.

''I thought he looked terrible and frail,'' said a Beijing-based diplomat. ''He looked like his mind had gone.'' Film footage shown on Wednesday night's national evening news broadcast showed Mr Deng, 89, attending a Lunar New Year gathering in Shanghai with local officials, including Wu Bangguo, the city's Communist Party boss, and Mayor Huang Ju.

Another clip taken on December 13 showed him on the Yangpu bridge, and a third showed him spending the evening of January 1 at a state-run hotel in Shanghai.

It was the first time the nation had seen Mr Deng since he appeared on television a year ago, also at New Year. In the meantime, his health seemed to have deteriorated rapidly. His stare was vacant, he did not appear able to turn his head, and he did notseem to respond to what was being said to him - in shouts.

Furthermore, he had to be supported on both sides by two of his daughters. Even then, he could only inch along. The footage of Mr Deng on the Yangpu bridge made him look, in the words of one diplomat, like a child being led on an afternoon outing.

''Deng looked gaga,'' said the diplomat. ''He's old and decrepit,'' said another.

By comparison, Mr Deng's ideological and political rival, Chen Yun, was fairly lively. Though Mr Chen, a year younger than Mr Deng, has been in poor health for years, analysts said his physical state at least seems to have stabilised.

Mr Chen was shown on television, also on Wednesday, holding forth in a conversation with Shanghai's Mayor, its party boss and other officials. Mr Chen spoke about nitty-gritty matters, such as taxation.

Mr Deng's quoted comments were more general except one that could have profound implications for the country: ''I think Shanghai has good conditions to be developed faster.'' Local officials, not only in Shanghai, might use these words as an excuse to thumb their noses at central Government leaders trying to cool China's fast-growing economy.