A symbol of conservatism retires from top China post

The retirement of octogenarian Marshal Ye Jianying helps the central leadership's campaign to replace aging party, government, and military leaders in regional positions throughout China.

It also removes from central office a personality who rightly or wrongly was regarded as a symbol of conservative Maoist opposition to the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping and his proteges Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Deng is chairman of the party's Central Advisory Commission and of its Military Commission. Hu is general secretary of the Communist Party. Zhao is premier of the State Council (cabinet).

Marshal Ye retains his party positions as a member of the Politburo's six-man Standing Committee and vice-chairman of the Military Commission. But it was his largely ceremonial position as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, that put him in the public eye. That position is equivalent to chief of state.

A new Constitution has restored the position of chairman of the republic once held by Mao Tse-tung. Once a new chairman is elected later this year, the chairman of the NPC Standing Committee will simply be the head of China's legislature.

Marshal Ye had a distinguished military career and is one of four surviving marshals of the People's Republic of China. In 1976 he played a key role in overthrowing the ''gang of four'' headed by Mao's widow, Jiang Qing. He also supported the return of Deng Xiaoping to the central leadership the following summer.

However, Marshal Ye is believed to have been unhappy over the pace of economic reforms instituted by Deng and his proteges and by their de-deification of Mao. Ye was considered the focus of conservative opposition to these policies , an opposition particularly strong among the armed forces.

In the power struggle between Deng and Mao's successor, Party Chairman and Premier Hua Guofeng, Marshal Ye is believed to have supported the latter. Hua lost first the premiership, then the chairmanship, and finally his seat on the Politburo.

Deng was careful, however, to make no overt moves against Marshal Ye, who was treated with every public appearance of deference and respect. The chief obstacle the leadership has faced in its campaign to promote deserving younger men at all levels of party, government, and military bureaucracy has been the reluctance of people currently in positions of power to give up their jealously guarded perquisites.

Furthermore, central authorities admit that nepotism is one of the serious problems left over from the ''old society.'' Marshal Ye's family has not been free of rumors in this regard. The reluctance of family members to lose their manifold privileges is a major reason so many local leaders, each of whom is like a king in his own bailiwick, cling to their positions.

Nevertheless, the reform-minded central leadership has won most of the battles that really count, first at the central level, now increasingly in the provinces. Marshal Ye's honorable retirement is expected to serve as an example and inducement to any local leader still trying to resist the tide of change.

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