The age-old system of seniority took a severe pounding March 10 as China kicked off a nationwide campaign to promote younger, more capable leaders. Every major newspaper in the country backed the concept with strong editorials calling for more "middle-aged and young cadres."
A period of "three to five years" was set for the transformation, which would mark a sharp break with both Maoist and traditional Chinese policies. The specific need, the People's Daily said, was the promotion of "more cadres who . . . are in their price of life and are highly competent."
The campaign comes only 10 days after a severe shake-up in the ruling Politburo that saw two Young Turks -- both economic specialists in their 60s -- added to the select Standing Committee. And the new push obviously reflects the pragmatic policies of senior Vice-Chairman and Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping, who orchestrated the changes.
The de-facto Chinese leader apparently believes that only a younger, more vigorous group of technocrats can meet the tough goals he has set for the country's "four modernizations." And he has obviously been frustrated by the slow reaction of the gerontocracy -- many of whose members owe their positions strictly to seniority and political pliability -- which still clogs the party's upper echelons.
Monday's articles noted there had been "bitter lessons" in selecting top leaders in the past -- a clear reference to the despised Lin Biao and other extreme leftists. The editorials vowed an end to "abrupt changes in which one leader succeeds another."
Instead, there should be "a healthy and steady process of natural transitionin which a new leading group, a collective that has gradually taken shape, replaces the old one step by step."
"The work cannot be done overnight," said the People's Daily, which admonished veterans to "pass on their experience to the younger comrades so they can mature more rapidly."
The recent plenum of the Central Committee, which installed youngsters Hu Yaobang (age 64) and Zhao Ziyang (age 61), as the party's sixth and seventh in command, also drafted regulations to ensure the timely retirement of aging cadres.
And Mr. Deng himself has promised to step down in five years, at the age of 80, to let younger men run the country. The coincidence of that retirement date with the "three to five years" mentioned March 10 is not a coincidence at all.
One veteran observer of the recent plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee commented that the creation of a secretariat staffed by men in their 60s rather than in their 70s was intended to set an example to party committees at the provincial, municipal, and county levels.(The 11 members of the secretariat average 66 years.) "If at the center we have leaders in their 60s, that means that at the provincial level we should have secretaries in their 50s, " this observer commented. "And when we get to the municipal or county level, we can have leaders who are much, much younger."
The top-level shuffle and new youth campaign have, according to observers here, two clear objectves. First, to insure the kind of succession Mr. Deng feels will carry on his policies. And second, through the consolidation of so-called "Dengists" throughout the party, to reassure those who at present are dragging their feet out of fear that the policy line might shift if the 76 -year-old Mr. Deng were to die.
The Vice-Chairman has railed repeatedly against provincial and industrial bureaucrats who have failed to implement his policies. And an injection of youth, along with hefty bonuses and other financial incentives, has occassionally been effective in breaking the logjam.
One case that recently received press attention was a group of 10 coal mines in Shandong Province that were on the verge of backruptcy.
It was revealed that fully 25 of the top cadres in charge were octogenarians who were bedridden most of the year. After a severe housecleaning, only six of the 216 party "subcommittee members" were "veteran cadres." The rest were all well-trained technicians of middle age or younger.
The mining system promptly turned a profit for the first time in a decade. And last year, it was announced proudly, the group was even listed as an "advanced industrial unit."
A stinging report published recently in the China youth daily referred to a survey that indicated most young cadres could rise no higher than the rank of "acting secretary" in their organizations. This was particularly true if they belonged to a political, rather than an industrial, unit.
Frequently, their superiors have far less expertise in the field than do the frustrated young cadres.