China looks for new brass

The Chinese military officer corps has become much younger in the past few years, but more top brass need to retire, says China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

In remarks made last week to a seminar sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission, Mr. Deng said that the older officers ''must give way to younger, more competent leaders.''

While the average age of lower-level officers had been getting younger in recent years, the top leadership of the Army was still too old, he said.

Deng also said he wanted to see a new generation of military leaders who are ''more open-minded'' and called on the armed forces to give their full support to the reforms announced at the Communist Party plenum two weeks ago.

The armed forces and its agencies ''should lend some of their capabilities to supporting development of the national economy,'' he said. ''The national defense industry could also turn out some civilian products,'' he said last week.

More than 20 years ago Deng advised Army cadres to reduce the average age of the leadership corps and to train new successors from among professionally competent younger officers. In recent years his warnings have been more blunt. Now the top leaders of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) general staff and the military advisory commissions, which Deng heads, are in their 70s and 80s.

The appeals for a more youthful top leadership for China's massive military establishment run parallel to the general call by China's leaders for younger, more competent people in the party and government.

Western military analysts say that the leadership of many military units is getting younger. There was great resistance four or five years ago to younger leaders, but much less now, they say.

For example, one young Air Force officer was given some prominence after he led a squadron during the flyover for the National Day parade on Oct. 1. As commander of an air regiment in the PLA, Zhang Jianping, in his late 20s, is the youngest regimental commander in China's Air Force, according to the official New China News Agency. The news agency then reported that the average age of regimental commanders is about 30, of divisional commanders about 40, and of Army commanders around 50.

Many of China's senior military leaders recognize the need for more modern and technologically sophisticated armed forces. Their reluctance to step aside, say Western analysts, has much to do with their belief that the rural reforms started five years ago have threatened, if not undermined, the social revolution that the PLA fought for in the countryside.

Many of these also oppose the deempahsis on Mao Tse-tung, the new emphasis on consumerism, and the increase of foreign involvement in the country, analysts say. The difficulties in getting senior military leaders to give up their posts have been compounded by the strict requirements of the military promotion system and the veterans' lack of faith in reform-minded younger officers, whose competence is more technical than political.

Under China's new military-service law, college graduates now can receive an officer's appointment and be enrolled for additional training at a military academy after being graduated. Some 1,600 college graduates received appointments last year, according to press reports. Deng has argued to his top brass that unless the older generation attends to the succession problem, the old guard radicals from the Cultural Revolution will stage a comeback.

That no longer seems likely after five years' effort to stamp out the remaining influences of the Cultural Revolution, both within the military and in the country as whole.

Even so, there have been frequent reports in the Army Liberation Daily on the handling of ''leftist'' attitudes and on the results of programs that would ''totally negate the effects of the Cultural Revolution.'' These suggest that such disputes and factions may still plague military units in the PLA.

There has been speculation that Deng would retire as head of the military advisory commissions for the party and the government. Party Secretary Hu Yaobang, in his late 60s, has been mentioned as his successor. But Deng, at 80, is younger than most of his colleagues on the military commissions.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.