China's power struggle tests Deng's grip. Aging leaders he has tried to sideline are increasingly prominent

The pushing and shoving for influence at the top levels of China's leadership are testing senior leader Deng Xiaoping's ability to keep the country on a steady course. The political infighting has been intense since Hu Yaobang was dismissed from his post as general secretary of the Communist Party in January.

The most noticeable sign of the struggle is the increased prominence in the leadership of a group of elderly revolutionary leaders. The reemergence of people such as Bo Yibo, Hu Qiaomu, Wang Zhen, and Song Renqiong defies Mr. Deng's policy of having the older generation step aside. These men are in their late 70s and 80s, and many were with Mao Tse-tung on the Long March, the communists' epic retreat from the Nationalist forces in 1934-35. These veteran leaders have reportedly been upset at attempts to curb their influence and have resisted Deng's effort to promote younger men to powerful party posts, especially those who do not defer to their elders' advice.

``At a time when the success of the enterprise of the party and people is at stake, the great mass of old cadres always stand in the front line,'' Mr. Song said.

In an apparent counterstatement, Deng recently told a visiting foreign official that China will continue to lower the age of its leadership. It was the first time in months that a top leader made reference to this policy, and it hints at Deng's resistance to the elders' new influence.

Some observers say that these veterans are trying to ensure that their prot'eg'es, in some cases their children, have a niche in the post-Deng political order. For several years, they resisted former party chief Hu's assault on the privileges of party rank, especially the right to fill party and government posts with their own candidates.

The older generation's new influence is largely conservative, as reflected in the aggressive propaganda against the influence of Western ideas and the stricter Marxist line now coming out of the party's powerful propaganda establishment. Party veterans share with the reformers a broad consensus on China's reforms, but they are very cautious about introducing policies that would alter Chinese culture and society. Veteran leader Bo Yibo said it was impossible to reject Western science, but that ``we must not humble ourselves ... and think that the moon is rounder abroad than in China. This is to forget our ancestors and our tradition.''

Another sign of the infighting, Peking observers say, has been the unprecedented leaks of confidential party documents to the foreign press. They included four circulars from the party Central Committee concerning December's student protests, the ouster of Mr. Hu, and guidelines for handling the propaganda offensive against Western ideas.

The documents were twice read to selected members of the foreign press by ``a ranking party official.'' They had previously been leaked to the Hong Kong press. According to one Chinese official, the leak of the first three came from the son of a senior party official in the so-called conservative camp.

There has been much speculation about the reason for the leaks. One common interpretation is that since the documents portray Deng as taking a hard line on the student protests, the conservatives wanted to show him on their side. In the first three documents, Deng is quoted as supporting political stability against any challenge to party authority.

The fourth document set forth the agreed limits to the campaign against ``bourgeois liberalization.'' The restrictions were first announced by acting party secretary Zhao Ziyang in late January and were apparently endorsed by Deng. But the limits have been widely flouted by party propagandists.

Even in the midst of the propaganda campaign, there are signs that the reformist camp under Mr. Zhao's leadership has not caved in completely.

The official Economic Daily recently carried a persuasive defense of the market economy, which followed from the pioneering party document of October 1984 outlining urban and industrial reforms. There has also been an article in the official People's Daily on the role of interest groups in politics, an idea taken straight from Western political science theory.

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