One by one, aged heroes make longest march of all


BEIJING -- The ravages of revolution could not do it, nor lifetimes spent in China's political wars. But time itself finally is overtaking the Long March generation.

The Long March of 1934-1935 salvaged the Chinese Communists' fortunes in their ultimately victorious civil war against the Chinese Nationalists. It is one of modern history's most heroic sagas.

A desperate retreat by encircled Communist forces, the grueling trek spanned more than a year and covered 6,000 miles. It took the lives of 90 percent of the 80,000 Red Army troops who first set out and who had to fight most of the distance.

For six decades, the march has provided the Communist Party with a brave, tough legacy. And the party leaders who date back to that era have drawn political sustenance from their enduring epithet, the Long March generation.

In recent years, the most prominent of the remaining Long Marchers has been a group of octogenarians dubbed "the eight immortals."

Only six of the eight actually made the Long March. By the late 1980s, several no longer held official titles. But their relatively hard-line political views continued to carry weight -- particularly in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

In the past year, however, three of the eight have died.

Former state President Li Xiannian was the first to go, at the age of 83 in June of last year. Deng Yingchao, the 88-year-old widow of late Premier Chou Enlai, followed him the next month. Wang Zhen, who still held China's vice presidency at the age of 85, died March 12.

Three others -- Bo Yibo, Chen Yun and Peng Zhen -- are rarely if ever seen in public these days, largely sidelined by illness or retirement.

And this weekend, the last of the "immortals" to hold formal office -- China's president, Yang Shangkun -- is widely expected to give up his title.

The 86-year-old Mr. Yang appears in remarkably good shape. And he is expected to have some say in Chinese political matters for a good while.

But in reality, the only one of the "immortals" now left with substantial power is arguably the least hard-line of them, Deng Xiaoping, China's patriarch since the late 1970s.

Mr. Deng is 88 years old. He doesn't hear so well. His eyes look glassy and at times wander. When he makes an infrequent appearance -- foreign journalists only glimpse him on TV -- a daughter is always at his side, supporting him and talking into his good ear.

He gave up his last formal office in 1990. His only title now is honorary president of China's Bridge Association.

But Mr. Deng remains mentally spry enough to hold the controlling hand in Chinese politics.

His reign over the past 14 years has produced the most peaceful and prosperous period in Chinese history since before the Opium War of the mid-19th century -- even given the Tiananmen turmoil.

As a result, everyone here is acutely aware that Mr. Deng is not literally immortal. And so the passage of time plays a role in China probably quite unlike any other place in the world.

To live here is to join in a mass death watch. All theories about contemporary Chinese politics hinge on Mr. Deng's well-being. The slightest news about his health assumes immense importance.

"His health is very good, his daily life very regular," Deng Rong, the daughter usually at his side, announced the other day. This made the front pages of Chinese newspapers as well as national TV news.

For his part, Mr. Deng has tried to set in place and bolster the standing of the party leaders whom he has anointed as China's next generation of leaders.

Six of the seven members of this collective range in age from 50 to 68; only one, 76-year-old military chief Liu Huaqing, was on the Long March. As a group, they are much less hard-line than their elders, and they hardly measure up to the Long March's legacy of toughness.

China under Mr. Deng already has forsaken many of the ideals for which the Communist Revolution was fought. Now there is some doubt if his successors have the mettle to lead China's march into the future.

These days, huge changes are sweeping across China at a breakneck pace. None, though, is more important than the slow but inexorable passing of the Long March generation from China's political stage.

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