China's heaviest burden

Americans tend to think they are carrying an unduly large federal bureaucracy on their tax-paying shoulders. They are carrying a lot of federal bureaucrats. The current official estimate is 1.4 million white-collar workers on the federal payroll.

Exact comparisions between the systems prevailing in the United States and in China are impossible. But some idea of the scale of what China's actual leader, Deng Xiaoping, is up against can be had by comparing that figure of 1.4 million US federal bureaucrats with 40 million privileged members of the Communist Party of China.

Party membership and government jobs are not identical in China, but they substantially overlap. Not all government workers are members of the party and not all party members work for the government. But the fact of 40 million party members indicates a bureaucracy even larger.

China has about four times the population of the US. The American federal bureaucracy on a Chinese population scale would come to 5.6 million. But China has something over 40 million bureaucrats.

In other words the average Chinese working taxpayer is carrying seven times the burden of the average American taxpayer. Party membership is an enormous millstone on the shoulders of the long-suffering workers of China and a major reason that China's economy tends to be sluggish.

Mr. Deng has persuaded the Central Committee of the Chinese party to authorize and order a ''rectification'' campaign, a polite word for purge, with the aim of reducing by 3 million the number of members of the party - and hence of the bureaucracy.

There are many reasons behind the purge. The official ones are to promote efficiency, dedication, and service among the party members. Plainly, Mr. Deng wants to get rid of a lot of members who came in during the so-called ''Great Cultural Revolution.'' They are the radical ''Maoists.''

But another reason, not mentioned in public documents in China but voiced quietly to some recent foreign visitors, is just to try to pare down by a little the dead weight on the Chinese economy of a bloated and privileged bureaucracy.

If the size of the present American bureaucracy is a burden on the US taxpayer today, try to calculate the cost to the American economy and to the American taxpayer from multiplying the number by 7 and then trying to find something for them to do.

Mr. Deng would undoubtedly, if he could, cut the party membership and the bureaucracy of China not by 3 million but probably by about 30 million.

But to do that he would have to abolish the central feature of the communist system as it has evolved in both the Soviet Union and China.

The reason for the bloated party membership and bloated bureaucracy is the idea of centralized state planning. The idea of having all economic decisions even down to the local level made by the central bureaucracy is the excuse for the existence of the bureaucracy.

Economists in the Soviet Union recognize and freely admit today that what their country needs above all else to regain economic health is decentralization. But to decentralize would be to deprive literally millions of party members of their jobs and their privileges.

The biggest difference between China and the Soviet Union today is that in China Mr. Deng is not only trying to revive individual incentive and to decentralize. He is also doing it. Private initiative has been released all over the countryside. Some party members are protesting about the rise of private farmers and merchants, who have achieved a higher living standard than the party members themselves with all their privileges.

When the party officials are outclassed by private farmers or merchants, a revolution has taken place. Such a revolution is under way in China. It is not under way in the Soviet Union. Yuri Andropov apparently understands as well as does Mr. Deng in China that economic stagnation is the end result of the system. Mr. Andropov has proposed decentralization and more tolerance for private enterprise, but the bureaucracy - meaning the party apparatus - is resisting stoutly. Progress in the Soviet Union is minimal. In China, it is startling.

Mr. Deng is not going to be able to break the one-party system in his own time, much as he might like to do so. But he can at least whittle away at the size of the party, and he can permit the revival of private enterprise at the local level. Someday there might be a revival of genuine competition for high government positions. But by then China would be escaping from communism. Mr. Deng is taking some short early footsteps that might lead there - after a lot more time.

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