IN 1969, Edgar Snow, an American writer who maintained access to the Chinese communists, interviewed the late premier Zhou Enlai. In the interview Mr. Zhou said that China was ruled by approximately 800 key party and military leaders who helped Mao Zedong seize power in 1949. Zhou predicted that they would run China for many more years to come. Although most of these 800 Long Marchers are gone, scores have survived. What seems most striking is that eight of the Old Guard still call the shots in China. All of them are over 80 years old and have stepped down from the Party Politburo.
Heading this elite group is 85-year-old Deng Xiaoping, chairman of the party's Military Affair Committee (MAC). Mr. Deng is China's paramount leader as he has been, since 1978, the chief architect of China's reform and open-door policies and the prime mover of China's foreign relations. On the other hand, Deng does not exercise the same kind of personal power Mao used to wield.
Deng has had to share his leadership role with a number of senior statesmen in the regime. Many Western analysts erroneously believe that Chinese leaders agree on main objectives (for example, modernization and reforms), and differ only on tactics and means to accomplish such goals. Yet the Chinese clash not only over methods, but also over power, policy, and personality. Deng must contend with other veteran leaders, as they are also the ``founding fathers'' of the regime. Some see themselves as the custodians of communist revolution and have criticized, blocked, and even reversed some of Deng's decisions.
The 84-year-old Chen Yun, chairman of the party's Central Advisory Commission, the bastion of the conservatives, is a prime example. Mr. Chen has been a strong advocate of orthodox economic planning and party discipline; like Deng, he is a patriarchal figure who commands considerable support in the party ranks.
In recent months, Chen Yun, Peng Zhen (the 87-year-old ex-chairman of the National People's Congress), and other senior leaders have leveled severe criticism at Deng. Prior to the violent suppression of the demonstrators in June, Chen sent a letter to Deng blaming him for hesitancy and poor leadership in responding to the students' challenge. Deng confessed his leadership failings, declaring that his most serious mistake was promoting Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang to the post of party general secretary. In order to shore up his already weakened position, Deng felt compelled to act tough. He ordered the troops to crush the demonstrators on June 4.
As a result of the brutal suppression, a large segment of the Chinese people feel betrayed, and the regime has lost credibility and legitimacy. This is bound to exacerbate the regime's crisis of authority and diminish its ability to elicit policy support and public compliance. Consequently, the military's political influence will expand.
For the moment, the leadership is trying to paper over its differences and put emphasis on stability. Political stability will be elusive if the regime is unwilling or unable to cope with many of the fundamental economic and political problems that gave rise to the recent turmoil.
Although the party Central Committee Plenum in June has elevated a technocrat, Jiang Zemin, to the post of general secretary, the struggle for succession is just beginning. Inasmuch as he has no power base inside the party or the military, and lacks leadership stature, Mr. Jiang will exert limited influence and his tenure will be short-lived.
Deng is going to great lengths to build Jiang up and groom him as China's future leader. Moreover, after the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the communist takeover on Oct. 1, Deng could step down from the MAC chairmanship and, at the same time, induce other veteran leaders to retire. This would clear the way for Jiang to be his own man and consolidate his position.
However, such an endeavor is unlikely to succeed for a number of reasons. First, Deng's influence has been seriously eroded and his political judgment called into question. Second, it is already too late - given his advanced age and frail health, Deng may not be around much longer to help Jiang. Third, because the system of gerontocracy is so firmly entrenched, the senior leaders, regardless of their titles or official positions, will continue to preside over the high command and play the role of kingmaker.
President Yang Shangkun, concurrently vice chairman of the MAC, is a man to watch. At 82 he is somewhat younger, in robust health, highly ambitious, and strategically located. Mr. Yang has supported Deng and seems to aspire to Deng's leadership status, and has been waiting in the wings for the day of reckoning so that he can emerge from Deng's shadow. Most important of all, Yang and his brother, Gen. Yang Beibing, director of the General Political Department, control the military - and in China, as well as in many third-world countries, political power grows from the barrel of the gun.