‘It’s Not the Same Communist Party It Was’ : China’s Old Soldiers Yielding to Technocrats

Times Staff Writer

The Chinese regime headed by Deng Xiaoping appears to be making a dramatic attempt this week to wrest the leadership of the Communist Party from the hands of the aging military leaders who fought China’s long civil war and to turn it over to a better-educated group of technocrats.

After five days of meetings here, the party’s Central Committee announced that 10 of the 25 members of the party Politburo and 64 of the 346 full or alternate members of the Central Committee have agreed to step aside.

Age was given as the sole reason for the resignations. But the change in China’s leadership is not merely a switch from old to young. Those who are expected to take the places of the retirees have markedly different backgrounds and training.

“It is not the same Communist Party as it was before,” said Father Laszlo LaDany, a veteran Hong Kong-based China-watcher. “Until now, the more ignorant you were, the more reliable you were. The party’s attitude was, you may not be educated, but you are a fine fellow.

‘Based on Degrees’

“Now in China, everything is based on degrees, like in the United States. If you haven’t finished secondary school, you are nothing. It is extraordinary.”


Underlying the leadership change is a broader effort by Deng and his aides to change the composition of the Chinese Communist Party.

The party now has 40 million members. According to figures published in China’s official press over the past year, only 4% of them have a college education and only 17.8% have had as much as a high school education. About a tenth of the party’s membership is said to be illiterate.

These education figures are higher than those for China as a whole. According to the 1982 census, of the 1 billion people in China, 0.6% have a college education and 6.6% have at least a high school education. An estimated 23.5% are considered illiterate or semiliterate.

Nevertheless, by Western standards the education level of the Chinese Communist Party has remained remarkably low. The problem has been compounded by the reluctance of many Chinese intellectuals to join the party and by the party’s deep mistrust of educated persons.

Gone are the days of the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese intellectuals were persecuted as the “stinking ninth” category, ranked below such other class enemies as criminals, spies, counterrevolutionaries and landlords.

But China’s government-controlled newspapers still feel compelled to issue regular warnings to party members not to discriminate against intellectuals. Occasionally, the Chinese press even tries to offer the party faithful some insights into unfamiliar habits and customs of educated people.

“You may be fond of playing checkers or chatting with others in your spare hours, while some intellectuals like to read books and listen to music,” said the newspaper Guangming Daily last December. “Each has his own ways of entertaining himself.”

By official estimates, less than 1% of China’s college students belong to the Communist Party. The party last year began a concerted new campaign to sign up college students, and the promotion of younger, better educated officials to party leadership positions may help this recruitment drive.

Of the 10 Politburo members stepping aside this week, six were high-ranking military officials. Of the other four, three had once commanded Communist forces during the Chinese revolution, and the fourth, Deng Yingchao, the widow of Premier Chou En-lai, made the famed Long March a half-century ago.

Earlier Emphasis on Youth

To be sure, there have been previous efforts to place younger leaders at the highest ranks of the Communist Party.

At a party congress in 1973, the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung installed a 39-year-old Cultural Revolution leader, Wang Hongwen, as a party vice-chairman, its No. 3 position. Wang was arrested after Mao’s death as one of the “Gang of Four” and is still in jail.

Hua Guofeng, whom the dying Mao chose as his successor, was only 55 when he became China’s premier and party chairman in 1976. Hua was later ousted by Deng and is now an obscure and largely ignored member of the party Central Committee.

Yet, even in these earlier attempts to promote youthful leaders, the military veterans who won the revolution maintained their influence on the party Politburo and continued to play a crucial role in policy-making.

It was military leaders who helped stabilize China during the Cultural Revolution, who masterminded the arrest of Mao’s wife and her allies after Mao’s death, and who helped shift the balance of control in the party from Hua and his allies to Deng.

Now Deng has finally managed to maneuver his forces into such a strong position within the Communist Party that he no longer needs the help of the old generals.

“It seems the People’s Liberation Army, from Deng’s perspective, is an entirely manageable commodity,” one Peking-based analyst commented this week.

To a large extent, the current overhaul of the Communist Party bears the personal imprint of Deng. Himself a revolutionary veteran, Deng has always been a believer in the importance of education, science and technology, and he raised his own two sons in such a way that they both aspired to be physicists.

For decades, Deng has sought to counteract the mistrust of advanced skills that Mao and his supporters--with their roots in the Chinese countryside and their greatest support among peasants--fostered within the Communist Party.

After Mao set up the “barefoot doctor” program, in which hastily taught peasants were supposed to provide basic medical care in the countryside, Deng ridiculed the concept, contending that those who treat rural patients should have better training. The program has now been scuttled.

It remains unclear whether the new social vision Deng has set up for the Chinese Communist Party will survive after his death. The younger group of pragmatists whom Deng is propelling into leadership positions will be responsible for managing the economy, the Communist Party and the country itself. They will no longer have the older military leaders to blame for any problems that arise.

“They may not be able to run the show,” LaDany warned. “A college degree doesn’t necessarily make a good Communist Party secretary.”