Peking's old guard set to call it a day

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THE LAST of the Chinese Communist Party's 'Long March generation' are to retire, preparing the way for an influx of younger economic reformists at the head of the party.

In the biggest clear-out of the leadership since the democracy movement was crushed in 1989, eight out of 14 members of the Politburo are stepping down. Old age was given as the reason yesterday - the average age of those departing is 74, with the oldest being President Yang Shangkun, 85. Like China's 88-year-old supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, who holds no formal position, most of them are expected to continue to wield considerable power behind the scenes. Mr Yang's control of the military, for example, will remain vital to the party.

As usual when sensitive announcements have to be made, news of the resignations was leaked through one of China's mouthpiece newspapers in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po. They are the first in a complicated set of moves during this week's 14th party congress, designed to remove all but one or two conservatives from leading positions.

Tomorrow the congress is expected to end, and the new Central Committee announced. This is likely to be considerably more reformist in its make-up. The following day the Central Committee will meet to elect the Politburo, which is expected to increase from 14 members to as many as 21.

While Mr Deng will lose several supporters of his 'reform and opening up' policies, including Qin Jiwei, the Defence Minister, and Wan Li, chairman of the rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, the new Politburo will contain an overwhelming majority identified with the supreme leader's views. Nearly all the party secretaries of the booming coastal provinces are expected to step up, along with central bureaucrats who have had a hand in the reforms.

Departing conservatives, such as the ideologue Song Ping, and Yao Yilin, both 75 and members of the party's innermost circle, the six-member Politburo Standing Committee, will not be replaced by people of similar views. This will leave the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and Li Tieying as the only identifiable hardliners on the Politburo. According to informed sources, they were retained to persuade the others to stand down.

At its first meeting, the new Politburo will elect the Standing Committee, which is expected to have one additional member. Peking is full of speculation over the names, but reformists are sure to be in the majority.

By the end of this process, Mr Deng will have gone much of the way towards ensuring that the approach contained in the opening address to the congress by the party secretary, Jiang Zemin - a combination of economic experimentation and rigid party control - will survive him. The eulogies to China's supreme leader this week have put him on a level with Mao Tse-tung, but unless he lives to see the next congress in 1997, his successor will have to come from among the men promoted over the coming days.

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