Many revolutions in history are said to have ``eaten their young.'' China's revolution has just done the opposite. It is eating its veterans to make way for the young. The aim: perpetuation of Deng Xiaoping's modernization and ``open door'' programs into the next two generations of leaders.
In a long-prepared move, 131 members of the Communist Party old guard -- most of them veterans of Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary war of the 1930s and '40s -- resigned from their positions on five ruling bodies of the party Monday. They did so to make way for younger, better-educated technocrats. A resignation letter from those leaving the party Central Committee stated bluntly that abolishing ``de facto lifelong tenure'' and ``rejuvenation'' were the main purposes of the mass departure.
Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping thus followed through on his blueprint to put in place not only the generation of leaders who will succeed him, but the generation he hopes will succeed them.
In the process he is also altering the Chinese ruling party and the leadership that administers the country. Self-consciously egalitarian, relatively uneducated old revolutionaries are being replaced by younger, college-educated officials with a world outlook and a penchant for technological solutions and pragmatic economic programs.
Despite this change, the struggle continues over entrepreneurship, decentralized management control, profitmaking, resource allocation, investment, stock issuance, who goes to college, and a host of other issues unknown in most communist countries.
In the view of many China hands, the youth revolution is not a monolithic shift. Many young students remain reluctant to join the party. Most of the bright college graduates who do join support Mr. Deng's modernization program vigorously.
But younger leaders vary widely in their aims from province to province. Some remain loyal to the old, inefficient, but job-secure collectivist patterns, while others favor the riskier but ultimately more wealth-producing free-market shift that has been underway for the last six years.
This week's move caps what sinologist Merle Goldman calls a ``Chinese party housecleaning that [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev will find hard to match as he plans for his own party congress next February.''
During the past six months the base of the Chinese party pyramid has been overhauled. Almost every provincial governor and regional party secretary has been replaced. Now the top of the pyramid is being put into the hands of new technocrats, mostly in their fifties.
``Deng has put his people in place from the ground up,'' Professor Goldman said in an interview last week at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.
Of the 131 resignations announced this week the key ones are those of 10 members of the 24-member Politburo. One of these, Marshal Ye Jianying, was also a member of the powerful six-person standing committee of the Politburo.
On Wednesday, at an unusual special conference of 1,000 party leaders, replacements for the 10 resigning Politburo members, most of them expected to be younger, will be announced. They are likely to include 56-year-old Hu Qili, the rising star whom many specialists think will eventually replace party General Secretary Hu Yaobang; 57-year-old Li Peng, the indefatigable Soviet-trained engineeer who is vice premier and heir-apparent to the premiership; and 56-year-old Tian Jiyun, the financial wizard
who often accompanies Premier Zhao Ziyang.
At a luncheon interview in Washington two weeks ago, a senior Chinese diplomat explained the way the transition to this third generation of Dengist leaders is supposed to take place. Already second-generation power is largely vested in such party Secretariat leaders as Hu Yaobang and his vigorous protege, Hu Qili (no relation), and in the inner cabinet of the State Council under Premier Zhao. They make most day-to-day operating decisions.
Those two power centers operate under the broad guidance of Deng. He exercises control largely through the enormous respect he commands. His channels of power are the standing committee of the Politburo, his chairmanship of the Central Advisory Commission, and his chairmanship of the Central Military Affairs Commission, which commands the armed forces.
It's notable that many of the resigning elders are veterans of Mao's Red Army. Their departure helps create openings into which Deng can promote officers loyal to his plans.
Among those plans: demobilization of nearly one-fourth of the People's Liberation Army over the next two years. Since the 4.2 million member army has been a source of resistance to Deng's program of cutting overstaffing throughout China and to his ideological change in the direction of a free-market economy, putting loyal officers in key positions may help contain such resistance.
The larger party bodies that are the training grounds for political and managerial talent will be dramatically altered by this week's resignations and replacements. The resignations of 10 Politburo members were among 64 resignations of members and alternate members of the 344-member Central Committee. Also, 37 of the 162 members of the Central Advisory Commission and 30 of the 132 members of the Discipline Inspection Commission are being replaced.
After this week's youthward shift, both the ruling Politburo and its pivotal standing committee will still be run by a majority made up of older party leaders. But there is strong evidence that already ubiquitous administrators such as Hu Qili and Li Peng are being groomed to usher a new generation onto those bodies, perhaps at the next party congress two years from now.
Possibly the most fascinating subject raised by the Deng housecleaning is whether communist regimes have at last found a method of accomplishing both (1) orderly leadership succession and (2) rejuvenation of a vast bureaucracy prone to inertia and corruption.
Multi-party democracies have an automatic system for leadership transition and for refreshing at least the upper segment of their bureaucracies. Communist states have generally lacked both, except for changes brought about by damaging purges or showcase trials.
Over the past decade Deng has engineered his multigenerational shift, while the Kremlin remained mired in its life tenure system of Politburo leadership. Making up for lost time, Soviet leader Gorbachev has replaced about 20 percent of the Soviet Union's local party leaders, adding to the 20 percent already turned out by his mentor Yuri Andropov.