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DENG XIAOPING, 1904-1997 // Man who made China a major power dies

Experts on China have been speculating for years about what would happen when Deng Xiaoping died. Would the passing of China's "paramount leader" trigger a fierce struggle for power or would it make little, if any, difference?

The usual answer was that it would make little difference, a possibly over-optimistic conclusion based on the theory that whatever political infighting there was had already taken place about seven years ago.

Now we get to find out if the experts are even close to being right.

Specifically, Deng's death Wednesday poses the following question: Will Jiang Zemin, Deng's chosen successor, be able to consolidate his power or will he turn out to be a transitional figure like Hua Guofeng, the chosen successor of Mao Tse-tung who held on for less than five years?

The signs coming out of Beijing don't provide a conclusive answer.

Jiang has indeed been Deng's chosen successor for more than seven years. Deng brought him in as Communist Party chairman in 1989 to replace Zhao Ziyang, who was blamed for mishandling the pro-democracy demonstrations that year in Tiananmen Square. Less than four years later, Jiang added to his power by taking on the title of president.

Ordinarily, those two titles _ plus Jiang's supposedly direct authority over the army _ would lead to the inevitable conclusion that no one in Beijing could challenge him. Jiang certainly acted as if he was in total control, dealing assuredly and from a position of seeming strength with President Clinton and President George Bush before him.

But experts on China, both in the United States and Asia, have noted evidence over the past few years that Jiang may indeed be having his troubles. The evidence may be circumstantial, but the experts say this is to be expected from such a secretive regime.

Questions about the extent of Jiang's control reached their peak about a year ago when the Chinese army appeared to be getting ahead of its political leadership over Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. China watchers in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies noted that the army general staff seemed to be taking the lead on Taiwan, pressing a dangerous campaign of military threats against the island of 21-million people. There were even reports that the army had wrung a grudging assent from the politicians for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan if it declared unilateral independence from China.

When the government itself went public with an appeal for total obedience from the general staff, worries about who was really in charge in Beijing seemed vindicated.

To make matters worse, all of this was happening as relations between the United States and China were especially tense. Beijing suspected that Washington was thinking of re-establishing some kind of diplomatic ties with Taiwan and that the Clinton administration was having second thoughts about the gamut of its dealings with Beijing _ from human rights to trade and East Asian security.

Two of America's top China experts _ former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Freeman _ even speculated publicly that the United States and China were on a collision course that could eventually lead to war.

Both Freeman and Solomon noted that China had been especially belligerent in recent years. Not only was its bluster over Taiwan completely out of proportion, but it was being unusually aggressive toward Vietnam and the Philippines in a dispute about sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

These, the two China experts said, weren't the actions of a Beijing leadership secure in its position and able to impose moderate policies. Instead, they said, the actions appeared to be those of a regime threatened by internal rivalries. Even though Jiang's position appeared unassailable, the leadership transition still wasn't over and a struggle for ultimate power was still under way.

This is an assessment our State Department doesn't like much because it calls into question the Clinton administration's public assurances that all is well between Washington and Beijing.

Even as initial reports of Deng's death were being checked out on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies was eager to affirm the official line. China's leadership transition had taken place years ago, he said, and no big changes should be expected because of his passing.

Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, more cautiously, limited themselves to noting Deng's historical role and his contributions to improving relations with the United States. Albright, in Britain as part of a round-the-world diplomatic tour, said it was uncertain whether she would visit Beijing on Monday and Tuesday as planned.

In any case, China experts note that it may not be until the fall that clear signs are available on the durability of Jiang Zemin's leadership in China. The Communist Party congress is scheduled for October and was expected to be crucial test of Jiang's regime even before Deng died.

Now with Deng's passing, the congress assumes even larger importance as a symbol of China's stability and its government's intentions toward the world.