China's Communist Party today approved a new Constitution committing the country to a pragmatic course and laying the legal framework for the most orderly transition of power in modern Chinese history.
Ratified by the National Party Congress, the Constitution sets up a semi-active Central Advisory Commission to be filled by China's aged leaders, thus making way for a new breed of Communists more in line with the nation's major task of economic modernization.
This puts to pasture an entire generation of Communist officials who won their stripes during the historic Long March in 1934 and have monopolized power ever since. Officials estimate that tens of thousands of top party jobs will be affected by the mass retirements.
The post of party chairman created by Mao Tse-tung nearly 50 years ago will be abolished to remove the aura of omnipotence that turned Mao into an unchecked autocrat in his latter years. Heading the party will be a general secretary in charge of the policy-making and administrative organs.
Current Chairman Hu Yaobang, 67, is expected to become general secretary, but other Communist veterans in their seventies and eighties -- including orthodox Marxists who oppose new economic reforms -- will withdraw to the advisory panel, which will supervise party affairs.
Deng Xiaoping, 78, the powerful vice chairman who has kept China on the path of moderation for the past four years, is expected to join the council of elders -- most likely as its head.
But a partial text of the new Constitution released tonight left it unclear whether Deng will completely retreat from active duty as had been predicted. According to the text, the head of the advisory board is to be selected from the Politburo's elite corps, known as the Standing Committee.
From the active Standing Committee also will come the head of the Military Affairs Commission, which runs China's huge armed forces. Deng, now chief of that commission, had been expected to retain his post if the Congress decided to keep the commission intact.
Senior Chinese officials said in recent weeks that Deng would give up his party posts and step into semiretirement, leaving party operations to his trusted proteges Hu and Premier Zhao Ziyang while he sat on the sidelines as an adviser.
Other Chinese sources said Deng had agreed to step aside as part of a deal to ease out his conservative opponents who were obstructing some of his reforms.
Although Deng will lose his vice chairmanship in the party shakeup -- all six deputy slots are wiped out with the chairmanship -- he would have to maintain a Politburo seat and act as a Standing Committee member to head either the advisory or military commissions.
Party Congress spokesman Zhu Muzhi said at a press conference today that some leaders who "enjoy very high prestige and rich experience in leadership" may be elected both to the advisory panel and active positions.
For Deng, the Congress offered a chance not only to arrange for his own succession, but for the smoothest change of leadership in China since the 1911 revolution that overthrew the last empire. The nation has been racked by political upheaval almost continuously since then, including a series of bloody political campaigns during Communist rule.
As a political guide, the new Constitution is a call to moderation, reflecting Deng's hope for a decade of stability to modernize China's backward economy and improve standards of living.
Five years ago, the last party congress adopted a Constitution extolling Mao's radical ideals and pledging that extremist movements like his Cultural Revolution that had just ended "will be carried out many times in the future."
This Congress pointedly omitted talk of revolution in its Constitution. Instead, it dedicates the party to economic growth, better laws and a richer life for Chinese citizens.
Echoing Deng's pragmatic philosophy, the document calls for the party to "proceed from reality in everything, integrate theory with practice, seek truth from facts and verify and develop truth from practice."
Constitutions in China provide important codifications of current policies and confer greater legitimacy on leadership views.
But the more lasting importance of the Constitution adopted today is the set of organizational reforms that arrange for the mass exodus of a generation of Communist guerrilla fighters and for the entry of younger technocrats.
At the central level, the general secretary will preside over a Secretariat, which is to handle day-to-day affairs of the huge party bureaucracy. Hu told foreign visitors last month that he and Premier Zhao would direct the group.
The Politburo and its Standing Committee -- they are to be elected by the party's legislative body called the Central Committee -- will set policy guidelines for the Secretariat. Since the Central Committee is likely to reflect Deng's views, so will its Politburo.
Working alongside the legislative and administrative bodies will be a watchdog panel known as the Commission for Discipline Inspection. This commission will monitor party work style, root out corruption and make sure party members are living up to their qualifications.
Advisory commissions are to be established in each province, absorbing the elderly, often outdated officials, many of whom refuse to cooperate with the new economic reforms.
The reorganization is the culmination of more than two years of political maneuvering by Deng to set up the institutional structure necessary for the implemenation of such controversial programs as de-communization of the countryside and piece-rate wage systems in factories.