The elderly Chinese leadership has begun a forced retirement system in an attempt to revive an overstaffed and stagnant bureaucracy, but the program's success actually may depend on the leaders also agreeing to retire.

The 30 years high officials in China customarily have continued to work until their death or complete physical incapacitation. This system slowed promotions of younger officials and left the government and most large enterprises in the hands of men in their seventies, many without the energy or interest any longer to perform their jobs well.

The recently completed plenary session of the Communist Party Central Committee promised to "end the practice of being a lifelong official," but the plan appears to be meeting some resistance.

Some senior Army officers were recently offered retirement at 120 percent of their salary, but without the advantages of a personal car and driver and automatic access to special stores, vacation resorts and other symbols of influence. A Chinese source said most of the officers rejected the retirement offer.

"I can't see how they are going to get much cooperation unless some people at the very top retire," one diplomat committee of the Communist Party Poliburo is about 70. The key leader is Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who will be 76 in August.

"As for myself, I have already declared that by 1985 I shall become only an advisor or consultant," Deng has been quoted as saying to a British visitor. "We are going to introduce a retirement system for our officials in China. If it covers me personally, I will be happy to accept it."

Chinese sources report, however, that so far Deng has agreed only to relinquish his largely ceremonial post as vice premier, keeping his job as vice chairman of the party Central Committee where most decisions are made. Two other vice chairmen of about Deng's age, Li Ziannian and Chen Yun, reportedly are planning to shed their vice premierships this year without actually retiring from power. This offers the opportunity to bring up younger men in their sixties, but does not solve the problem of moving older men out of authority.

Deng's actual retirement while at the height of influence in the party and government would be a remarkable departure from the practice of the last 30 years, and perhaps would help break that logjam of old men impeding China's modernization and discouraging youth. His ambiguous retirement statement, however, overlooks that by 1985 he will be 81 years old, not a particularly good model for early retirement.

One foreign resident of Peking who has talked with Chinese about the evolving retirement system says it appears to have many loopholes.

"The standard seems to be that if you are healthy, you can contiue to work no matter what your age, but if you are not healthy, you are out," he said.

The Chinese have been particularly interested in the Japanese system of retiring senior officials but allowing them to continue as advisers to their successors, thus maintaining contact along with substantial pay and benefits. Deng's interest in this system, which would help ease out recalcitrant elder officials lends it additional weight.

An important editorial in the March 10 People's Daily said, "A good way to pass on experience and to help and guide young officials is to get a group of selected young people move to the forefront, while veteran comrades retreat to the second and third line. . . . Veteran comrades are the invaluable treasure of our party and state.

"This method of establishing the front line and the second and third lines will benefit them by allowing them to spend much of their time in pondering the major issues of our party and state and to steer them well. This method is also conducive to their health."

In the meantime, the party seems to be toying with the idea of actually reducing some of the privileges that induce older officials to continue in office. A recent report by the party Central Committee and the state council said, "Anyone who uses a car for private business will have to pay for it" and "no public money may be used to wine and dine or buy gifts for higher-ups."

Chinese authorities have had a historic reluctance to officially remove privileges, including access to the good resorts such as Beidaihe on the Bohai Gulf and access for officials' children to the best schools and travel and job opportunities. If they actually reduce privileges under the new order to reduce unnecessary administrative costs by 20 percent, remaining on the job may not seem so attractive to some older men.

Much of the new interest in retirement seems so wrapped up in the political interests of Deng and his proteges, however, that lasting reforms may not occur. The March 10 editorial seems to be a justification for Deng's efforts to promote his proteges, considered here to be relatively young even though in their sixties, to the top leadership and isolate real or potential Deng adversaries, such as the current Party Chairman Hua Guofeng.

Hua was appointed personally by the late chairman Mao Tse-tung. The People's Daily editorial called for "the healthy and stable natural evolution of a gradually formed new collective leadership gradually replacing an original collective leadership, and not the isolated and abrupt process of one person replacing another."

It remains to be seen whether Deng and his elderly colleagues can let others make important decisions, or whether a retirement policy will be forgotten once all the people Deng wants removed from the highest echelons are gone. One reported scheme, to move Hua to the revived post of president, would further saddle the younger man with ceremonial chores, leaving Deng to make decisions.