The Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a strenuous campaign to jack up discipline, root out corruption, and thereby restore its badly eroded prestige. Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping himself, the most powerful individual in China today, is leading the campaign. In the words of another respected party elder, Vice-Chairman Chen Yun, ''For a ruling party, the question of party style is a matter of life and death, of the very survival of the party.''
The People's Daily devoted the top half of its front page and two-thirds of its third page Nov. 2 to long excerpts from Mr. Deng's recent speeches and writings on rectifying the party's style. In them Mr. Deng repeatedly calls for discipline, attacks selfishness, corruption, and bureaucratism, and stresses the importance of an all-round rather than a partial grasp of Mao Tse-tung thought.
When Communists speak of rectifying the party's style, they mean correcting the party's way of doing things.
There have been repeated rectification campaigns both before and after the party gained control over mainland China in 1949. But as Chen Yun admitted, it is very much more difficult for a party in power to keep itself pure than one that is fighting a revolutionary struggle to come to power.
Mr. Deng takes ferocious aim at bureaucratism. ''Bureaucratism,'' he said in a speech to the Politburo Aug. 18, 1980, ''is a great problem that exists extensively in the political life of our party and state. Its chief expressions and harmfulness are:
''People lord it over everyone, use their powers in an indiscriminate way, become divorced from reality and the masses. (They) like to keep up appearances and come out with empty talk. . . . Offices are overstaffed, there are too many people doing nothing. . . (and) there is no effort to improve efficiency.''
He continues: ''Nobody takes responsibility or keeps promises. Papers make the rounds of office after office, and responsibility is shifted onto others. The results are a stifling bureaucratic atmosphere. . . .
''Both the upper and lower levels are deceived. People behave in imperious and despotic ways, practice favoritism, take bribes, and bend the law for the benefit of relatives and friends. . . . Both in our domestic affairs and our international dealings, all this has reached an absolutely intolerable state.''
That speech was made over a year ago, and so far bureaucratism continues.
Mr. Deng is also concerned about party cadres and members who refuse to follow the Central Committee line.
It would appear that the Dengist line of modernizing China through economic incentives and decentralizing decisionmaking powers is meeting with resistance from party bureaucrats and from some younger people calling for greater political freedoms.
For Mr. Deng reminds members of the party's authoritarian structure. ''If a party allows its members completely to talk and act as they please,. . . the party's tasks cannot be carried out smoothly. . . . The individual must submit to the organization, the minority must submit to the majority, the lower levels must submit to the upper levels, the entire party must submit to the party center. . . .''
''If the party commits an error,'' Mr. Deng says, ''sooner or later the party center itself will correct it. No one should be allowed to use this (i.e., the error) as a pretext to resist the leadership of the party center. Only when the entire party strictly obeys the party center can the party lead all members and the whole nation in the battle to achieve the great task of modernization.'' (The two preceding paragraphs are from a Deng speech of Jan. 16, 1980.)
There, in a nutshell, is Mr. Deng's and the party's dilemma. To achieve modernization, the leadership needs a united party. But the very authoritarian structure of the party engenders the bureaucratism and corrupt practices that obstruct the task of modernization and damages the party's prestige.