In China, Communist Ideology Is Dead, but Party Shell Lives on Chinese See Party as Only Assurance of Public Order and Rising Prosperity Series: CONTEST OVER ASIA. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. Third of 3 Articles Appearing Today

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IDEOLOGICALLY, the former newspaper editor admits, communism in China is dead. But the party lives on, he says, not because Chinese like the aging Communist leadership, but because there is no substitute.

"China is culturally different from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Even though the beliefs are gone, the shell is still there, because no one is willing to take the lead in damaging the shell," says the editor, who lost his job for supporting political protests in 1989. "No one will touch the shell because it is already empty. It will collapse by itself."

In today's China, Marxism-Leninism may be passe. But no one is betting on an imminent demise of the ideologically bankrupt Communist Party.

Despite economic liberalization, which has opened China to foreign investment and trade and undermined the command economy, the party continues to attract membership among young and old, according to official reports.

In 1992, membership rose almost 5 percent to 52 million members as applications, largely from the rural peasantry rather than urbanites, have jumped sharply in the past two years. Despite years of political oppression under the Communists, Chinese still regard the party as the only source of public order and, in recent years, of prosperity, international stature, and peace.

Chinese analysts say that many people worry about a possible cutoff of economic reforms, which have dramatically raised living standards, and are uneasy about the imminent leadership transition that will follow the death of ailing supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

Although many Chinese resent Mr. Deng and the ruling Communists for the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests four years ago, they view the party as the only force able to shepherd the country in its transition to capitalism.

For the time being, the party also remains in control of patronage and advancement in China's vast welfare state, which many Chinese workers are afraid to jettison for the uncertainties of the marketplace. …