BEIJING — "Dengism"- Deng Xiaoping's belief in wealth over politics - may be fading. Communist ideology may be coming back.
Amid widespread rumors that China's ailing strongman has taken a turn for the worse, the future of his creed and of his family's business empire are being called into question. Although the leadership still pays homage to fast economic growth and prosperity to stay in power, they are also reasserting their ideological clout and demanding party discipline.
In a sign of Mr. Deng's declining influence, his once high-flying children have been forced to pull back from their vast network of businesses in southern China.
Deng Pufang, the patriarch's eldest son who was partially paralyzed when radical Red Guards pushed him out of a college dormitory window during the Cultural Revolution, is reported to have defended his father in a recent speech.
The younger Deng made his comments before a meeting of the Chinese Federation for the Disabled, an organization he heads.
The new generation of Communist rulers, headed by President and Communist Party General-Secretary Jiang Zemin, worry more about the widening income gap and foreign influence on Chinese culture.
At a special party meeting scheduled for September, Communist conservatives are expected to again raise questions about China's shift from socialism to capitalism. In his bid to take political center stage after Deng, Mr. Jiang faces a delicate balancing act, Chinese analysts say.
"Jiang has to balance between right and left because he doesn't want to lose his job like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang before him," says a Chinese analyst, referring to two previously anointed Deng successors who were ousted after economic reforms stirred political unrest. "But he leans to the left because that is now the path of political survival."
Since 1978, Deng has been China's paramount ruler. During that time, China has made the transition from isolation and communism to an economic power that is asserting itself on the world stage.
After the military suppression of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Deng's economic reforms suffered a setback at the hands of skeptical party ideologues. The patriarch then reignited his program in 1992 with his celebrated tour of fast-growing economic zones in southern China, a cornerstone of his strategy to reform the centrally planned economy.
But since then, he has been sidetracked by ill health and has been pictured only twice in the media. And government propaganda no longer effusively touts his policies and achievements as inspiration for the next generation of leaders.
The special economic zones, located on China's eastern coast, are under attack for widening the income gap between rich and poor. Some of the incentives to lure foreign investment have been rescinded, and coastal provinces are now under pressure to spread the wealth inland by paying higher taxes.
"Deng's death [would] pose something of a challenge to the Chinese political system, but many people don't see it as making a major difference," says a Western diplomat here. "Deng has been on the margin politically for several years."
Some analysts think the party's ongoing anticorruption crusade is aimed at dismantling the Deng economic empire rather than salvaging the corrupt Communist Party.
Ding Peng, Deng's niece, was caught in a corruption scandal last year when an Australian business partner was sentenced to 18 years in a Chinese jail.
Deng Zhifang, the patriarch's youngest son, resigned his business interests after his company came under investigation for corruption. Deng's son-in-law, He Ping, reportedly lost his job in Poly Technologies, a Chinese arms-dealing firm, after it was charged with smuggling automatic weapons into the United States this year. So far, none of the Deng clan has been formally charged.
In his speech, Deng Pufang criticized recent government policies that "wholly negate the Deng Xiaoping political line."
He argued that his father's policies had boosted social stability rather than fostering the corruption and disparities that many say are the flip side of his economic successes.