China's top leader Deng Xiaoping has sharply restricted the influence of China's powerful military through recent leadership changes and is now maneuvering to bring it under the direct control of his chosen successor, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, according to diplomats here.
Diplomats said this week that the main evidence of Deng's increased effort to bring the military under greater civilian control was an article published Monday in the official military publication, Liberation Army Daily, which has often printed articles critical of military changes.
The article praised Hu's "outstanding organizational leadership" during the Communists' civil war against the Nationalists in the late 1940s and the Daily published excerpts of Hu's statements at that time on political work done in the Army.
The diplomats said this was a clear sign that Deng is preparing to give Hu a leading place on the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, a powerful body whose chairman is, in effect, the commander of the armed forces.
In the past, the military has apparently been unwilling to accept Hu to replace Deng as chairman. This has appeared to be a major weakness in Deng's plans to institute an orderly succession of civilian leaders to take over top positions after his death.
The late Chairman Mao held the commission chairmanship from 1935 to 1976 and originally used his hold there to gain leadership over the Communist Party in China.
There was no indication of any imminent move to place Hu on the military commission. But diplomats said Deng and his allies were clearly preparing the Army for a change by focusing on Hu's earlier work with the military.
One diplomat doubted that Deng and his colleagues could succeed in placing Hu at the head of the military commission, given Hu's lack of a major military background.
"I can't believe it's going to happen," said the diplomat. "There probably is a certain skepticism in the professional military ranks as to whether Hu is capable of running the Army."
A knowledgeable Chinese source also said it was unlikely Deng would make the move to transfer Hu to the military commission in the near future because some top military officers are dissatisfied with the speed with which Deng has moved in the past four months to bring the military under stricter control. There has been a shake-up of military regional commands and high-level military officials have been retired from their Communist Party positions.
It is widely believed that the military chiefs have been reluctant to accept Hu because he lacks major military credentials. Deng was the political commissar of a field army in the late 1940s in the war against the Nationalist Chinese and the Japanese. At that time, Hu held a middle-ranking position, serving as director of a political department in the Army. Both men made the historic Long March of 1934-35.
Deng currently maintains personal contacts throughout the highest levels of the military and is looked upon as a military equal of top Army leaders. Hu is not.
As Hu explained in an interview with the Hong Kong magazine Pai Hsing in May, to get anything done with the military, Hu or Premier Zhao Ziyang had to say five sentences whereas Deng achieved the same result with only one.
In the past, Deng has often complained that the world's largest army is "bloated" and he and his senior colleagues have streamlined the 4 million-strong Army by cutting personnel and shaking up the military regional commands.
In June, eight out of 11 regional commanders were retired or transferred, including Li Desheng, the veteran commander of the strategic northeastern military region.
This month, as a result of preparations for a special Communist Party conference, six out of nine military men on the party's ruling Politburo resigned, including Li.
The Communist Party's Central Committee, the party's decision-authorizing body, meanwhile, has seen a steady reduction in military representatives since Mao's death, from 27 percent of the total membership in 1977 to 19 percent in 1982. As a result of the recent party conference, military representation on the Central Committee is now estimated at about 13 percent.