Seven vice-ministers of the Third Ministry of Machine-Building recently retired ''to the second line'' to become advisers to the ministry. A high official of the ministry was congratulated for this courageous decision, which would set an example for other ministries and help speed the government's sweeping plans for reorganizing and streamlining China's bloated bureaucracy.
''What do you mean, congratulations,'' the official replied. ''Seven have retired, but we still have 15 vice-ministers left.''
This is just one of the stories making the rounds of government circles here as Peking's leadership comes to grips with what Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping calls a ''revolution - not. . .against people, but in administrative structure.''
In a long-awaited report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (China's legislature), Premier Zhao Ziyang said March 2 that reform will start with the central ministries.
The 98 ministries, commissions, and agencies of the State Council (the executive branch of government), will be cut to 52.
Deputy Premiers, now numbering 13, would be reduced. Twelve ministries and commissions have been selected as the first group to be streamlined. They will be merged into six ministries.
Ministers will be encouraged to retire at 65 and vice-ministers at 60.
Cuts at the top will be particularly drastic. Ministers and vice-ministers will be reduced while departmental directors will be cut by 51 percent. The reform of central ministries is expected to take one year, after which the streamlining process will move to the provinces.
The excerpts from Mr. Zhao's report released so far do not mention concrete inducements, but reliable sources state that officials who agree to retire have been offered the following:
* Retirement at full pay for life, plus one yuan per month for every year worked since ''joining the revolution'' - the communist party. Those joining before the ''long march'' of the early 1930s would have had fifty years of service by now, and thus would get fifty yuan per month over and above their official salaries.
A grade-eight official (usually vice-minister rank), now draws 260 yuan per month. If he joined in 1932, he would get 50 yuan more, or 310 yuan per month, about $172.
* He may keep his present official apartment and telephone, plus access to secret documents. He will have the use of a car.
* In some cases, he may be retired at a rank one level higher than his current rank, or be allocated larger official housing.
* Finally, depending on rank, he will be given the chance to travel by making one inspection trip per year within China.
Official salaries in China are modest. The main benefits of high rank are not salaries but fringe benefits. Many officials rate access to secret documents the most important of these perquisites.
The leadership is hoping to make the streamlining process relatively smooth. But many of retirement age are still said to be reluctant to take the plunge. Once retired, they lose an important unspoken benefit: the ability to help relatives obtain good jobs.
Meanwhile the communist party's organization department is said to have been swamped with letters from lower-level cadres complaining that they have been offered none of the benefits being prepared for high-ranking officials.
But leaders of the reorganization are counting on the dynamic pressure of younger officials, who see their chance of finally reaching a decisionmaking level, to help promote a peaceful revolution.