THE Chinese Communist Party gave strong backing yesterday to the official trade union movement, saying that no matter how far the mainland moved towards a market economy, the working class would always maintain its dominant role in society. Speaking at the opening of the 12th National Congress of Chinese Trade Unions in Beijing, Politburo standing committee member Hu Jintao stressed that even in the private sector workers were still the ''masters of the country''. ''The development of the socialist market economy will not change the nature of the state or the leading position of the working class in the life of the state,'' Mr Hu said in his keynote address. ''The party and government must take a clear-cut stand and with one heart and mind give unwavering support to the guiding principle of relying on the working class,'' he added. Nevertheless, Mr Hu said, the working class, which includes factory workers, intellectuals and administrators, should adapt to the economic changes sweeping the country. ''It is inevitable that during the process of reform, different interests will be readjusted,'' he said. ''Workers, as masters of the country, should maintain their tradition of taking the overall interests of the state into consideration and subordinating their immediate interests to the long-term interests of the country as a whole.'' Mr Hu's message was backed up at the opening of the congress by the presence of senior party leaders, such as General Secretary Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng and the chairman of the National People's Congress, Qiao Shi. Mr Jiang, when meeting with delegates, called on union leaders to relay the aspirations of workers and take an active role in economic reforms. Analysts said the attendance of so many senior leaders reflected concern that the official trade union movement is losing its way and becoming increasingly irrelevant as the country moves from a state-run to an increasingly market-orientated economy. ''The official unions derive their power from the old established structure of state-run enterprises. Now that those enterprises are changing and the private sector is developing rapidly, the unions have been largely left out in the cold,'' a Beijing based economist said. ''This worries the party because the unions have traditionally been an extension of its power and control at the grassroots level,'' he said. The rapidly diminishing influence of the All China Federation of Trade Unions was highlighted in the work report read out yesterday by the federation's vice-chairman, Zhang Dinghua. Mr Zhang pointed out that the lack of any effective organisation in private, collective and foreign-funded enterprises was seriously harming workers' interests. ''Some foreign-funded and private enterprises are obstructing the establishment of unions, encroaching on personal freedoms, wantonly extending work hours, embezzling salaries, sacking workers and not providing adequate health and safety measures,'' he said. ''Trade union members at every level must strengthen their research and investigation, use the law to set up unions and protect workers, establish a stable relationship with labour and aid the healthy development of these enterprises,'' he added.