Comrades who waste no time on ideals

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It would be surprising if more than one of China's 57 million Communist Party members yesterday, the 75th anniversary of the party's foundation, spared a thought for the Communist Manifesto, a document first translated into Chinese in 1921

."Spot the Marxist" is a favourite (if not very productive) sport among China-watchers.

The world's largest and most powerful communist party has never had too much time for ideology. If anything, it has always been more nationalist than communist.

Yesterday, the party - which seized power in 1949 after almost three decades of bitter struggle - issued a clarion call not for the realisation of Marxist ideals but for the people to fight corruption, a cancer which even the party admits is eating at its very heart.

Few of the Communist old guard remain, yet those who do, notably the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, wield tremendous influence. The next generation, personified by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, are more in the mould of Soviet-educated bureaucrats who have no experience of the struggles which almost exhausted their revolutionary predecessors. Their main concern is to maintain the party's power. At a rare news conference a few years ago, Mr Li was asked when he had last opened a book by Karl Marx. The usually impassive premier was visibly taken aback. It took some time before he finally spluttered out a response to the effect that Marx was an important thinker.

Membership of the party these days is sought more for career progression and access to privilege than for any ideological motive.

The ideological convulsions, such as the disastrous "Great Leap Forward" of the Fifties, which killed millions of people, and the Sixties' Cultural Revolution, which was both murderous and intensely damaging to China's social development, are admitted as being mistakes.

Reports from Peking now speak of pressure for the Communist leadership to reassess its actions during the bloody Tian-anmen Square uprising of 1989. But there is no public sign that such a reassessment will be made in the near future.

Having allowed communism to mean more or less whatever the Chinese leadership has decided it should mean, the clique which runs the Communist Party hopes its pragmatism will enable it to flourish for another 75 years.