'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean," Humpty Dumpty tells Alice in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."
The Chinese Communist Party takes a similar approach when it describes its ideology as "socialism with Chinese characteristics." This creed has little to do with socialism anywhere else in the world, and the party long ago discarded the sort of beliefs that Karl Marx espoused.
But if the party is communist in name only, it remains very much a Leninist institution, following almost to the letter the Russian revolutionary's edicts on how to control a state and suppress any challenges to its rule.
China today lives under "market-Leninism," a system introduced by Deng Xiaoping, who took a uniquely pragmatic approach 30 years ago as he launched the free-market economic reforms that have propelled the country to global prominence.
Mr. Deng ditched traditional communist ideology and all the Maoist nostrums about equality and communes, and declared that "it does not matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice." He also announced to a population sunk in poverty that "to get rich is glorious."
"Only by offering people a better life can the party win people's support, and only if the party has public support can socialism survive and develop," he adds.
Chinese Communist Party scholars have woven a convoluted theory to explain how China is in "the early stage" of socialism (which is why it doesn't much resemble socialism), during which it is important to learn from capitalism. Communism is a distant goal in even the most optimistic scenario, and nobody is putting a date on its achievement.
Former party leader (and president) Jiang Zemin upended another pillar of classical Marxism with his "Three Represents" theory, according to which the party does not represent only workers and peasants, but also capitalists. (The party flag, however, still bears only the hammer and sickle as symbols – no checkbook yet.)
Class struggle, a key element of Marxist analysis, is out. "Jiang Zemin's breakthrough," explains Chen, "was to remove class divisions from party theory."
All this ideological zigging and zagging, says Zhang Qianfan, a constitutional lawyer, has been necessary "because the party is very anxious to get rid of its ideological legacy but doesn't like to do so in an obvious way. So it creates some theories to justify its practices. But its biggest interest is to maintain itself in power."
The party's ideology "is hard to explain because it is always changing as time passes," says Ma Zhigang, a member of the party who makes his living as a management consultant. "The party has changed at each stage of our development; if it can't do that, it can't survive."