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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amid Rumors of Death, Deng's Influence Wanes

BEIJING -- One of the best-kept secrets about Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping may finally be out: He doesn't matter anymore.

Indeed, the fate of his family's business empire and the future of his policies have fascinated Chinese and foreign observers here over the past few weeks, more so than the perennial rumors of his impending death.

Deng's children have made a quiet exit from the web of businesses that they once ran in southern China, most of which owed their success to the family name. Without the protection of their 91-year-old patriarch, Deng's niece, son-in-law and even his youngest son have run afoul of anti-corruption efforts by China's new generation of leaders.

None of the Deng clan have been charged with wrongdoing, but the fact that they are no longer viewed as untouchable shows how the elder Deng's influence has all but vanished.

China's new rulers, headed by President Jiang Zemin, also have tried to tone down some of Deng's policies, showing less tolerance for foreign culture or the gap between rich and poor.

From 1978 until recently, Deng was China's uncontested ruler, the man who transformed China from Mao Tse-tung's isolated, impoverished Communist state to an economically vibrant country.

Deng's last great push came in 1992, when he took a celebrated tour of southern China's experimental economic zones, using the trip to urge Jiang and the other younger leaders to be bolder in reforming the economy.

By 1993, however, Deng's health had started to deteriorate, and in 1994 he was only caught twice in pictures: early in the year on television, looking drawn and weak, and later in the year in a photo with his eyes staring vacantly at a fireworks display.

Not only has China's propaganda machine stopped releasing pictures since then, but it has stopped touting his ideas and writings. And the economic zones that Deng visited in his 1992 push have been called into question.

Preferential policies, such as low tax rates, are being abolished, and the coastal area is being forced to redistribute some of its wealth to the impoverished inland.

Culturally, the country is growing more conservative. It is in the midst of a campaign to remove "colonial" culture, ordering stores to purge their signs of foreign words. And in a break with Deng's emphasis on economics over politics, Jiang recently made a speech ordering officials to "talk politics."

"Jiang still pays lip service to Deng, but he realizes that he has to define himself and so has put an emphasis on stability rather than bold reforms," said Tai Ming Cheung, a political analyst with Kim Eng Securities in Hong Kong.

Two weeks ago, in one of the biggest waves of rumors in 18 months, Beijing and Hong Kong were awash with tales of Deng's impending death.

But even before the rumors were discredited, the overall reaction showed little anxiety. The Hong Kong stock market didn't flicker, Chinese intellectuals shrugged their shoulders and diplomats predicted that even if it were true, Deng's death wouldn't change the way China was run.