We are in Geneva in the late 1980s and the world's top three leaders cannot agree on when socialism will be realised in their countries. So they ask God's opinion. To George Bush, God says that it will take five years, to which Mr Bush responds angrily that his country does not want socialism. To Mikhail Gorbachev, God says that it will take 50 years. Mr Gorbachev is angry too, saying that he will not be alive to take the credit. When Deng Xiaoping asks when China will achieve socialism, God thinks for a long time and then answers: 'Not in my lifetime.' If God had a membership card to attend the Communist Party congress in Beijing this week, he might be surprised to find how accurate his prediction was. Debates at the congress will be mostly about money, how to turn around state companies and fund social welfare programmes, and how to stop corrupt cadres and factory chiefs from siphoning it off to buy villas in Hong Kong. There will be no talk of the international brotherhood of socialism or world revolution, or even how soldiers, workers and farmers are the masters of the state, or how to achieve equality. In fact, Beijingers say, there is not much socialism left in China. For the party, what mattered was that its power was unchallenged, said one. The rest is negotiable. The economy increasingly is like that of a capitalist country. The party here did not make the mistake Russia made in neglecting its economy. It adapted, and welcomes entrepreneurs as members. In China, what counts now is money and education, not class background or ideological correctness. Housing, schools and medical care used to be provided free to workers in state factories and institutions, but no more. The individual is paying an increasing proportion of the cost. The lucky ones are those who work in companies that make profits and can pay a large part of the cost of these services. The victims are those whose companies are in the red or closed and can pay little or nothing. Eighteen years of Dengist reforms have spawned a widening income gap. An official survey found those workers in banking and insurance earn the most, with average annual income of 9,448 yuan (about HK$8,780), followed by those in high technology with 8,966 yuan and transport and communications with 8,778 yuan. This elite together account for 9.2 per cent of the urban workforce. The poorest categories are workers in retail and catering - who account for 13.7 per cent of the workforce and earn 6,668 yuan a year - and industrial workers, who account for 35.6 per cent and earn 6,921 yuan. The best payers are foreign-invested joint ventures, which provide an average annual salary of 12,260 yuan, nearly double the average of 7,600 yuan paid by state companies and institutions. The survey found that most lucrative were the new industries such as finance, telecommunications, consumer goods and pharmaceuticals that have boomed in the Dengist era, with few or no price controls. The poorest are the old industries dominated by the state, such as agriculture, mining and heavy industry, which have lagged behind because of official restrictions and price controls. While this survey covered urban residents, it omitted the very rich, such as private businessmen, senior managers of big companies and conglomerates and government and party officials who use their position for personal gain. These people have cars and apartments, complete with servants, take foreign holidays and eat in the best restaurants. The reforms that have produced such disparities - along with China's remarkable economic growth - have also ended what people used to call the superiority of socialism, lifetime security for urban workers. Millions have been laid off or dismissed from loss-making companies. Just as in Mrs Thatcher's Britain or Reaganite America, angry editorials tell these laid-off workers to stop moping at home as they wait for the government to help them, and to find a new job on their own. A prime-time television documentary recently interviewed workers in Chongqing who had lost their state jobs and opened small businesses, one selling snacks and drinks, another mending clothes, as they tried to save money and worried about who would pay their pension. The government is setting up a national pension insurance scheme to replace the individual schemes provided by state companies, as well as an unemployment insurance system, which paid out relief funds to 3.31 million people last year - 27 per cent more than in 1995. But these schemes are not large or comprehensive enough to meet the needs of the millions of unemployed and their families. So the party is transforming itself like no other Communist Party in the world, retaining absolute political power but encouraging a market economy with multiple forms of management and ownership. The debate within the party is over how to balance these two aims. What are the limits to the market? What is the minimum level of state ownership needed to retain the dominance of the party? Can it allow the emergence of private millionaires like the property moguls of Hong Kong?