Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was reminiscing not long ago with a group of Communist Party officials about the days when he and they were in their prime.
"I was 45 at the time of liberation (the Communist victory in 1949)," Deng said, "and many were even younger."
Now, at the age of 80, Deng is spearheading a campaign to persuade elderly party and government leaders to step aside in favor of younger people. Of all the reforms being pushed in China today, the drive for new blood at the top may well be the most important--and the most difficult.
This is not the first time China's leaders have sought to dislodge elderly officials. But earlier such campaigns have failed and now the dominance of the elderly in positions of power is reaching what many view as crisis proportions. For the age problem in China touches every level of society.
Peasants have an earthy label for local party leaders of advanced years. They call them "the four cadres with five teeth among them."
'Standing' a Misnomer
In Peking, leaders are so old and ill that a sardonic diplomat recently remarked that the Standing Committee of the party's Politburo is a misnomer.
With the possible exception of the U.S. Supreme Court, no American institution, in government or business, can rival in seniority virtually any Chinese ministry or enterprise. The following examples illustrate the situation here:
--According to recently published figures, there were 4,427 full professors at Chinese colleges and universities at the end of 1983. Their average age was just over 66 and about 40% of them were 70 or older.
--The new president of the Communist Youth League, Hu Jingtao, is 42, barely a year younger than John F. Kennedy was when he became president.
--The average age of literary figures at a recent convention of the Chinese Writers' Assn. was the lowest ever; about 40% of them were 55 or younger.
--The average age in the General Assembly of China's Academy of Sciences is 70-plus.
--Three years ago, the average age of the men in government, at the level of Cabinet minister, vice minister or director, was 65; newspapers recently reported that the figure has now been reduced to 59.
Deterred by Inflation
In all these institutions, high-ranking officials like to cling to power--and such privileges as the free use of a car. And there are other perquisites. A young Chinese official said recently that an elderly superior would not agree to step down because his job allows him to travel overseas once a year.
Persuading elderly Chinese to retire is particularly difficult at present because of the widespread expectation that economic reforms will cause inflation. The country's leaders have promised that wage increases for workers will keep pace with expected price increases, but it is feared that pensioners living on fixed incomes may be left behind.
The age problem is the most serious at the highest political levels. The Politburo's six-man Standing Committee is made up of the 80-year-old Deng, Marshal Ye Jianying, 87, Chen Yun, 79, President Li Xiannian, 79, Premier Zhao Ziyang, 65, and party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, 69.
Ye, an old ally of the late Premier Chou En-lai and for years one of China's most important power brokers, is in such poor health that he no longer attends party meetings. Almost every month there is a rumor that his death is imminent. Chen is also reported to be in poor health, and he spends most of his time away from the capital.
Decisions by Few
The result is that the Standing Committee, which in theory runs the party and through it the country, does not play much of a role in decision-making.
Premier Zhao told visiting American scholar A. Doak Barnett last year that the most important decisions are made by the party secretariat or the State Council, which is China's Cabinet. He said the 25-member Politburo no longer meets on a regular basis.
Hu recently told a Hong Kong newspaper publisher that he and Zhao make most of the day-to-day decisions on their own and then consult with Deng and other members of the Standing Committee.
By the standards of the Standing Committee, Zhao and Hu, the two proteges Deng has been grooming to run the country, are young men. Yet they are now old enough to qualify for pensions in the United States.
Last fall, after the party approved a sweeping program of economic reforms, Deng proudly told party members that he had had no part in it, that Zhao and Hu had drawn up the program on their own.
Father Laszlo Ladany, a Jesuit priest who for years has been one of Hong Kong's leading specialists on China, observed recently: "Deng treats them (Hu and Zhao) as if they were little children. He says, 'See the (reform) document? They did it by themselves.' They are 69 and 65 years old, for God's sake."
A Third Echelon
In fact, in the interview with the Hong Kong publisher, Hu said that he and Zhao "cannot be expected to be working too far in the future." The party secretary suggested that he will withdraw from party affairs after the party's national congress in 1987.
Hu and other high-ranking officials have recently started to talk about the development of what they call the third echelon of leadership. The first echelon includes leaders like Deng and Ye in their late 70s or their 80s, and the second consists of such men as Zhao and Hu, in their late 60s. A third would be the men and women of the future--people in their 40s or 50s.
For now, the third echelon--men like Hu Qili, a member of the party secretariat who is looked on as a rising political star--wait patiently for the day, perhaps in the next decade, when they will be considered ready. Hu Qili is now 55.
The Communist Party of China was not always this way. In its earliest days, when it was an underground revolutionary organization, it was controlled by men in their 20s and 30s.
"I was 23 when I was made secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee," Deng recalled to officials attending the party session that approved the economic reforms. "Yes, I was a big official already at that time, and I didn't know a thing. But then, I came through."
Deng became party secretary in 1927. Calvin Coolidge was President that year; Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.
Party Lost Youthfulness
But these days in China a 23-year-old man is generally considered too young even to be given permission to have a child, and certainly too inexperienced to take charge of the Communist Youth League.
After they won the civil war and took control of China, the Communist Party leaders tended to stay on in their jobs for years or decades, and the party lost its once-youthful character.
There were a number of reasons for this. There is no time limit on the top jobs. Moreover, the party's egalitarian ideology has fostered a tendency to promote people on the basis of seniority. Only recently have China's leaders spoken of a need to advance the more talented people. Finally, officials say there is a general reluctance to fire people, particularly those in leadership positions, because of the unpleasantness involved. This is particularly true now, they say, as China strives to create an image of stability.
In the face of these obstacles, Deng and other Chinese leaders are experimenting with a number of methods for getting elderly officials out of their jobs.
The first of these is abolishing life tenure for some positions. Not long ago, China announced that the job of factory manager will have a fixed term of no more than four years, though anyone who performs well may be allowed to serve an additional term or two.
Fixing Job Rules
A second method the regime is trying is simply to fix the rules for certain jobs to make sure they are filled increasingly by young people. When party leaders called for a national conference to be held this September, they specified that the delegates should include not only members of the Central Committee and provincial party leaders but also an unspecified number of "middle-aged and young party members" who have distinguished themselves in recent years.
The Central Committee told provincial leaders in Shaanxi province last year that they could elect a new provincial party secretary by secret ballot--but added that the new official would have to be under 60 years of age.
Also, Deng and other high-ranking officials are hoping to persuade elderly officials to retire.
"We ask our older comrades to give as much advice as possible," Deng said last year. "We also ask them to emancipate their minds. . . . It's not easy to ask middle-aged and elder comrades to give up their posts. But this must be done."
The problem is that every high-ranking official considers himself an exception. In 1980, Deng himself promised to retire by the year 1985. He did give up the post of vice premier a few years ago, but now that 1985 has arrived, he appears to be exercising more authority than ever.
"I hope the day will soon come when I don't have to do anything and will also be quite healthy," he told party members last year. "Then I would consider my mission completed. However, now it seems that there are still a few things for me to do."