China's strongman and architect of its modernization program, Deng Xiaoping, plans to retire as first deputy premier at the National People's Congress this summer.
The de facto leader of the collective that runs China today has already quit his post as chief of staff of the Army.
Neither move represents a lessening of political power for the tough, but diminutive Chinese leader who has twice been purged and twice bounced back into political favor.
Rather the expected move is part of a carefully worked out plan to ensure continuity of policies and an orderly succession from the present generation of leaders to the next.
Vice-Premier Deng will be succeeded by one of his closest proteges, Zhao Ziyang, former communist first secretary in Sichuan (Szechwan) Province, now a member of the seven- man Politburo standing committee. This information comes from a reliable source with long-established contacts here.
Other leaders expected to retire from government positions with Mr. Deng are deputy premiers Chen Yun and Li Xiannian. Chairman Hua Guofeng is expected to continue as prime minister.
Messrs. Deng, Li, and Chen are expected to retain their party positions as vice-chairmen and members of the Politburo standing committee, where they will constitute a kind of council of elders, along with octogenarian Marshal Ye Jianying, chairman of the National People's Congress standing committee.
Pulitburo standing committee also has younger members -- Mr. Zhao, general secretary Hu Yaobang, and Chairman Hua.
In a recent conversation with Japanese parliamentarians Mr. Hua, who is 59 years old, made clear that he regarded himself as one of the younger, active members of the party and government, not as an elder. "Veteran revolutionaries are out treasure," a Japanese legislator quoted him as saying, "but replacing the old with the new is a law of nature. We shall make use of their rich experience in important situations, but let younger people take care of daily jobs."
This is, in fact, the stated purpose of the new party secretariat headed by General Secretary Hu, another trusted protege of Mr. Deng. Youth in China is relative, and the average age of secretariat members is 66.
Mr. Hua also referred to purged Politburo members Wang Dongxing, Chen Xilian, Wu De, and Ji Dengkui, calling them comrades and saying that they had offered to resign and their resignations had been accepted. He said the four had made contributions to the revolution, but had committed some errors during the Cultural Revolution.
After the smashing of the "gang of four" (headed by Mao Tse-tung's widow Jiang Qing) in 1976, the four purged Politburo members committed a "grave error, " said Mr. Hua.
It is thought he referred to their opposition to the present Deng Xiaoping policy line. But, he continued, it was not party policy to place them in irredeemable situations, and therefore appropriate jobs were being sought for them.
These remarks are believed to reflect the present leadership's concern to show that the arbitrary arrests and purges of the days of the Cultural Revolution will not be repeated, that although criticism and self-criticism will continue (and Mr. Hua himself is said to have engaged in self-criticism at the recently held Fifth Plenum or assembly of the Central Committee), stability order, and respect for law will prevail.
Mr. Hua told his guests tha although there would be personnel changes in the future, as in the past, the tempestuous changes of the Cultural Revolution, and the 180-degree turn represented by the smashing of the "gang of four," would not be repeated.
The final shape of personnel changes will not be known until the twelfth party congress convenes in December. The National Party Congress (China's legislature) meets annually in June, a convenient midpoint this year between the Fifth Plenum and the party congress.
Aside from the retirement of Mr. Deng and some of his senior colleagues, it will probably provide the occasion for the promotion of younger technocrats and professionals in government (as distinct from party) service.
Thus, step by step China's leaders hope to achive the changing of the guard, the passing of the baton from one generation to the next.