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A Successor Generation

An even more remarkable shift in the composition of party leadership occurred at the National Conference of Party Delegates in September 1985. Over 100 senior party leaders submitted their resignations, including 10 members of the Political Bureau and 64 members of the Central Committee. The officials reportedly gave their reason for retiring as a desire to make way for younger and better-educated leaders who were more equipped to lead China and guide the reform program. In fact, these retiring leaders were a mixed group, some of whom lacked the vigor and skills necessary to handle the complexities of reform, while others had reservations concerning the direction and pace of the reform program. Some even may have believed that it was best to turn over responsibilities to a younger leadership. In spite of this trend, Deng, who was himself eighty-two years old, and several other senior leaders continued in office. Officially, he maintained that his requests to retire had all been turned down. In fact, the progress of the reform program was heavily dependent on Deng's continued central role.

Hu Yaobang's demotion in 1987 also raised questions about the quality of the selection process for top positions and even about the stability of the reforming Chinese political system. Hu had been viewed as Deng's successor as party leader, but he came under attack from within the Political Bureau for what was described as indirectly encouraging questioning of the communist system, for pushing the economic reforms beyond their intended limits, and for speaking out abruptly in international circles. Although Deng reportedly apprised Hu of his errors, Hu was said to have failed to change and thus was demoted in accordance with party disciplinary rules. Obvious attempts were made to ease the general shock of Hu's demotion, including allowing him to retain his seat on the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau and having him shown in the press in attendance at key meetings. It seemed likely that Hu would be demoted further, at the Thirteenth National Party Congress scheduled for October 1987. This would correspond to the treatment a few years before of Hua Guofeng and preserve the appearance that the party was handling leadership affairs rationally, in clear contrast to the era of Maoist purges.

Data as of July 1987