When Chinese President Yang Shangkun left here for a routine eight-day trip to Singapore and Malaysia, Premier Li Peng offered some cheerful advice.
"Don't let yourself get too busy," Li counseled Yang while shaking hands goodby at a brief departure ceremony in the Great Hall of the People last week.
Yang, a sturdy 84-year-old, bantered briefly with Li, then headed for the airport.
Li's words, however pleasant and respectful, carried an implicit acknowledgment of the central fact of political life here: The men who really rule China are old. Very old. Yang is one of the few who is not also sick or feeble.
With Deng Xiaoping, 87, slowly fading, and other octogenarian power-holders rumored to be hospitalized, Yang plays an increasingly important role as Deng's most important political ally. As a national leader, Yang now is second in influence only to Deng.
Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, 65, and Premier Li, 63, while titular heads of the party and government, in fact serve only at the pleasure of their elders. This reality was dramatically demonstrated in the events of three years ago that led to Jiang's elevation.
The decision to use violence to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations that engulfed Beijing in the spring of 1989 was essentially imposed by eight octogenarians: Deng, Yang, Chen Yun, Li Xiannian, Peng Zhen, Wang Zhen, Bo Yibo and Song Renqiong.
Zhao Ziyang, the reformist head of the Communist Party at the time, strongly advocated softer means of bringing the situation under control. He was overruled not by his generational peers, but by the elders. Zhao then was booted out, and Jiang was installed to replace him.
After the crackdown, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Beijing students and citizens were killed as martial-law troops shot their way into the city, the Chinese media heaped effusive praise on the "veteran revolutionaries of the older generation" for their decisive role in defending socialism.
These so-called Eight Elders--too weak physically and mentally to actually run the country day by day, but too powerful to be pushed aside--still exercise veto power over major policy and personnel decisions. The result is that there are no dramatic new initiatives on anything.
"They don't have arduous work schedules--none of them except Yang work more than an hour or two a day," commented a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They also peruse documents, however. A government minister told me you can never know, when you're doing something, whether it might come to their attention. So they do play a semi-active political role."
In recent months, most of the eight have dropped out of sight. The people of Beijing, and much of China, now await the elders' passing with uneasy anticipation, unsure whether the looming generational change augurs greater freedom and economic progress or an eruption of chaos and bloodshed.
China is so secretive about the health of senior leaders--at least on matters that are truly serious--that it is impossible to be sure of their real conditions. But indications are that a wave of deaths may come this year.
"It could go down like a house of cards--one of them dies and the others go within six months," the Western diplomat commented. Reports of ill health swirl around almost all the senior leaders:
* Wang, 83, China's vice president and a vocal hard-liner widely despised by Chinese intellectuals, is rumored to be suffering from cancer and to have been hospitalized in December. A Chinese source said that Wang recently had surgery for throat cancer and that he is unlikely to live more than a few months. According to another story circulating here, Wang is having severe respiratory difficulties and an opening was cut in his throat to assist his breathing.
* Peng, 89, a former mayor of Beijing with broad ties to China's security apparatus, is said by some diplomats in Beijing to have suffered a stroke last fall. A Chinese source reported that Peng fell during a trip to Shandong province in early December and was left "permanently paralyzed." The December issue of the Hong Kong China-watching magazine Trend said Peng is hospitalized with heart trouble.
* Chen, 86, the most powerful critic of the pace and direction of some of Deng's economic reforms, has been in poor health for at least five years. He made a remarkable reappearance on Oct. 1, 1989, on the rostrum at Tian An Men for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China, but looked like an invalid. Since then, he has made virtually no public appearances. In early January, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted a report by a Shanghai source that Chen is receiving "intensive medical care." Chen maintains a residence in Hangzhou, where he usually spends the winter, and if he were to be hospitalized, it would probably be in nearby Shanghai.
* Li Xiannian, 82, Yang's predecessor as China's president, has been hospitalized with emphysema, Trend magazine reported. The South China Morning Post also described Li as "seriously ill."
* Song, 82, a former Politburo member, was also hospitalized in December, according to the Trend article.
* The healthiest of these senior leaders, along with Yang, seems to be Bo, 84, a former vice premier. But he is among the least powerful of the eight and is generally not viewed as someone who would carry great weight by himself once his elderly colleagues are gone.
* Deng, the most important of all, appears to be in better shape than most. But he has long been rumored to be battling prostate cancer and, in any case, he too is failing.
When then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited Beijing in May, 1989, state-run television, during a brief burst of honest reporting, showed Deng dropping food from his chopsticks at a banquet. When Deng met former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in July, 1990, "he wasn't really on the ball all the time," the Western diplomat said.
After that, either Deng or those around him decided that he should no longer receive foreign visitors.
"He might ramble a bit, or drool a bit," the diplomat explained. "It looks terrible for a country's senior leader."
Times researcher Nick Driver contributed to this report.
Aging Power Brokers
China's so-called "Eight Elders" are too weak physically to run the country day by day but still too powerful to be pushed aside.
Deng Xiaoping, 87: Long China's paramount leader, he is slowly fading.
Yang Shangkun, 84: Physically strong, he plays an increasingly important role.
Chen Yun, 86: A strong critic of reforms, has been in poor health for years.
Li Xiannian, 82: Former president, has been hospitalized with emphysema.
Peng Zhen, 89: Former Beijing mayor, is said to have suffered a stroke.
Wang Zhen, 83: Vocal hard-liner despised by intellectuals, may have cancer.
Bo Yibo, 84: In good health, but one of least powerful of the eight.
Song Renqiong, 82: Former Politburo member, reportedly hospitalized.