Peking's version of the RIF is swinging into high gear with the announcement that the nation's most powerful leader, Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, is curtailing his administrative duties.

Far from representing a loss of power, however, the announcement that Deng is restricting his role appears to represent a key maneuver toward a major goal of Deng and his pragmatic colleagues: taming a bureaucracy that they concede is bulging with overlapping and superfluous jobs and riddled with incompetent officials and holdovers from the Cultural Revolution who are out to sabotage new economic reforms.

Cutting thousands of jobs out of the world's oldest and most tenacious bureaucracy makes Washington's current reductions in force look like child's play.

Topping the central government behemoth are more than 1,000 ministers and vice-ministers, or "too many mothers-in-law," as one official recently told parliament. Some governing bodies have 20 vice-ministers even though four sufficed in the 1950s.

The number of major departments has more than tripled since the 1950s.

By all indications, cutting back is no easy feat, and despite what seems to be an organized, disciplined reform movement, foreign analysts predict considerable political jockeying by officials who appeal to backers higher up to save their jobs.

This practice of leaning on one's "back stage" has blocked previous reform drives, and a key test of the forthcoming campaign will be how many jobs political wheeling and dealing protect.

"Nobody loses his job in China without a fight," said a European diplomat.

It's no surprise, then, that Deng has rolled out heavy artillery in the early stages of the battle by offering himself as an example of when and how to bow out gracefully.

Deng, 77, is widely regarded as the only Chinese politician able to meld the nation's factions.

Last Saturday, Vice Premier Wan Li said in an interview that Deng remained in robust health but had withdrawn from day-to-day decision-making. Although Deng often has talked of turning over power to younger men, Wan's comments, coming 25 days after Deng was last seen publicly, continued to raise questions about his reasons for stepping back now.

Chinese officials did little today to clarify the issue, stressing only that Deng retained his powerful jobs as party vice-chairman and head of the commission that runs China's huge military.

But diplomatic observers view Deng's public absence and purported withdrawl as a symbolic gesture to encourage other aged communist officials to give way in the forthcoming bureaucratic trimming.

"If Deng, who is 77, doesn't step back," said a Western diplomat, "how can he convince men younger than him to quit?"

Chinese officials say Deng is deeply involved in the bureaucratic reforms that he considers vital to the success of his economic modernization program and his efforts to bequeath China an honest and efficient government committed to moderate policies.

They say he is orchestrating the bureaucratic trimming from behind the scenes and delivered a key speech in the past two weeks to party leaders here. Politburo members are believed to be finishing a reorganization plan.

Goals unveiled at China's parliament in November and more recently in the official media include purging the obstructionists, forcing out the aged and incompetent, prosecuting the venal, eliminating some government organizations, merging others and accomplishing, overall, "a maximum reduction of staff."

The first target of the remodeling are elderly cadres who cling to their posts until death because of such generous benefits bestowed upon communist officials as cars, telephones, housing and access to classified documents.

Although they could retire on full salary, old, even senile officials keep working because there is no compulsory retirement age. More than 2 million now holding jobs joined the party before 1949.

Politburo members are reportedly considering mandatory retirement ages of 65 for top officials and 60 for middle-level cadres.

Since Deng's own public absence, the official media have given prominent attention to the resignations of 13 vice-ministers and 102 veteran municipal officials from the industrial city of Tianjin.

Also celebrated in the party People's Daily were 269 officials of the ministry responsible for aircraft construction who stepped down or became advisers.

After the elderly, communist reformers are believed to be focusing on corrupt bureaucrats and those who rose to power during the Cultural Revolution, 10 years of political chaos beginning in 1966. Half of the party's 38 million members joined during that hysterical decade when radical leftists gained influence, often at the expense of pragmatists now in power, including Deng.

Arrests of party officials found to have abused their positions or to have committed a common crime are reported almost daily in recent months. Last week, the chief of the Canton telecommunications bureau and his wife were charged with smuggling Hong Kong televisions, radio cassette recorders and wristwatches into China and selling them for huge profits.

The case was of special significance because of the political backing the official had been able to call upon for several months protecting him and his wife from prosecution.

Deng was widely reported to have been visiting Canton when the arrest was announced on the front page of People's Daily last Friday. When the arrest became known in Canton, said the newspaper, "everyone cheered and clapped their hands and ran around spreading the news."