Paul Jacob
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By the time you reach 80, even strangers begin to notice your birthdays. It's natural. The older you get, the more your life resembles a contest — almost a sport — with Grim Natural Death as antagonist.

You gotta root for octogenarians. It's not the law . . . just a sign of humanity.

Well, China's Communist Party has turned 85, and constitutes something of an exception.

Sure, it's lasted. Years ago, at a mere 28, it took over a very, very large nation and has held it in stranglehold since. Its older brother established the U.S.S.R., and had maintained its tyranny for just less than 70 years. So the commies in charge in China are getting nervous.

There's not much "ah shucks" support for the 85-year-old. In the West, we merely wait for it to die. In China, increasing numbers suspect that it soon will. Or at least should.

But the youth in Asia can't yet count on that hoped-for euthanasia. For now, as the 85th anniversary of the Party closes and daily business resumes, Chinese activity still tends to center on the Communist Party: Membership is even increasing!

But CP membership ranks increase in China for the same reason that, in America, most kids go to college, or businessmen join a local Chamber of Commerce: membership in the party is the way to get ahead.

And under the constrained capitalism that the Communists now nurture, the ones seeking mainly to get ahead make up today's key players. These "floating members" are the ones who, given the right circumstances, could switch alliances so easily. Perhaps that's one reason they are called "floaters."

A disrespectful term, eh? I'm no expert in Chinese, but I gather that it casts a dark glance to the growing Lumpenproletariat in China, also called (in English translation) "floaters."

The lumpen-floaters are the homeless, who resist control by the Chinese bureaucrats. Kicked off or wandered off of the former commie-feudal land system, they don't fit in today's world, other than when transformed into low-wage workers . . . or mendicants. The fact that this class is growing presents a problem for the control the CP demands and the equality the CP allegedly represents.

The bourgeois-floaters, on the other hand, look like a bigger problem yet. They are rich. Almost everyone looks up to them. And they seem to be having all the fun.

Yup, they are China's yuppies. They are developing their own culture of play and irony, and they don't take communism or authority or anything but wealth very seriously.

As Newsweek reported recently, the recent bao xian "Stay Advanced" campaign — complete with inspirational exhortations for self-sacrifice as well as hard work and innovation — became the bao xian zhi "Saran Wrap" campaign . . . in the mouths of floaters. This (untranslatable) hilarity could not continue, of course, so the Party's poopers changed the program's name to xian jiao, or "Advanced Education." That wraps up the official tolerance for whimsy.

And yes, the word "advanced" is everywhere in China. The leader of the CP recently entered the concept into the official ideology as a major doctrine. The Communists have succeeded, you see, because they have always possessed "an advanced organization."

And here all along I thought it was because they had no compunction about humiliating or killing anyone!

The biggest problem on all lips, though? Corruption. Everybody talks about it. The floaters who engage in it probably make jokes about it. But rank-and-file Party members, and your average subject, are aghast about the levels of party corruption.

In between the lines of the reports that reach the West, however, one catches this whiff of inevitability. Surely the Chinese, as their private sector grows, are beginning to see why corruption is rampant. Corruption comes with widespread state powers. It is as inevitable as muck in a rice paddy.

You know how it works. In the realm of government, a citizen paying a bureaucrat something "extra" to get a job done is corruption. In the private sector, it's nothing more than the way things get done: payment for service rendered. In a sense, markets are legalized bribery.

Communism, historically, has been the agency of the destruction of markets, the agency wherein people with political power have tried to "get things done" by force, by command, by centrally organized, planned, bureaucratic distribution rather than separately organized market exchanges, trades.

China's evolution from a murderous, monstrous communist tyranny to a quasi-capitalist society under tyrannical controls has amazed much of the world. And while it may be that 70 percent of Shanghai's businesses are now private, and further that private businesses make up nearly half of the city's wealth, it's still the case that China has a huge, bloated government, controlling way too many things.

Power comes from the barrel of a gun, said Mao, and he was just fine with that. Nowadays, he wouldn't know what to make of the country he helped "found," so to speak, with his revolution. It's not communist. The parts he'd understand and admire remain chillingly callous and cruel and destructive. The private businesses and trading would appall him, though, and the Party's ideal of dedicated, self-sacrificing (and other-sacrificing) bureaucrats has mostly disappeared. Bribery is everywhere.

And maybe that's one of the reasons China is booming. Bribery helps get things done. Were the party to crack down on it, fewer things would get done.

That's not "advanced," is it?

So, the capitalist-admiring commies are not likely to crack down on corruption. But will they be willing to give up more control in the economy, making corruption a non-issue? The bourgeois-floaters would be fine with that.

But, as we say in America, what about the poor?

Here in the West we give them food stamps and a few extra bucks per month and hope they stay out of our malls, so we don't have to see them. (When we do see them, at Wal-Mart, we complain about the store.)

In China, they are becoming all too visible: obvious reminders of the failure of Communism, the inequalities of capitalism, and the truth of something one of our more advanced leaders said millennia ago: "the poor will always be with us."

If only those two floater groups would get together to solve their problems and make a buck, they'd really have something then. Somehow, I think that's unlikely — but not as unlikely as the 85-year-old Party's hegemony surviving another 50-odd years.

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Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.