Retired senior cadres and old-school Marxist scholars have published an open letter to Beijing's top leadership, attacking the country's reforms as having gone badly off track - in a sign of escalating ideological warfare between the Communist Party's liberal and conservative camps ahead of a key party congress this autumn. The group's open letter, addressed to President Hu Jintao and the party's Central Committee, was published on the conservative website Mao Zedong's Flag yesterday, one day after the liberal-leaning journal Yanhuang Chunqiu ran a cover story calling for political liberalisation. Among the 17 party members who put their names to the letter were former ministers, retired diplomats and army officials, and academics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the State Council Development Research Centre and top universities and think-tanks. Many signatories also signed an online petition against the Property Law, before the annual meeting of the National People's Congress in March. The lengthy letter questioning the fundamental direction of the mainland's reforms over the past two decades jars with the country's present economic ethos and represents the party's most conservative voices. It accused the country's top leadership of eroding socialist doctrines and leading the country towards a potential political crisis by selling off state assets, relentlessly seeking foreign investment and opening the party to capitalists and entrepreneurs. 'Party secretaries have become capitalists and capitalists join the party, while workers and farmers have lost their status of state masters ... Foreign corporations are plundering domestic markets and crushing our national economy,' the article said. The embrace of capitalism had spawned a dangerous mix of rampant corruption, unemployment, a yawning wealth gap and potential social unrest, it argued. Liberals, in contrast, blame most social problems on the lack of a democratic political system. 'Our socialist cause has been severely hindered and lost its direction,' the letter said. 'Frankly speaking, the current reform model is trying to replace public ownership with private ownership and to transform China from a socialist country into a capitalist country. We're going down an evil road. The whole country is at a most precarious moment.' It warned that if the leadership continued down this path, the mainland would soon 'have its own ... Boris Yeltsin' and 'the demise of party and country would loom'. The article suggested the central leadership launch an ideological campaign before the 17th Party Congress to restore orthodox Marxism and purge other revisionist socialist ideologies such as social democracy. It was referring to liberals' advocacy of Scandinavian-style democracy, best articulated by former Renmin University vice-president Xie Tao in a high-profile article published in Yanhuang Chunqiu this year. The party hardliners also made other radical suggestions to Mr Hu who, along with the politburo, is busy finalising the party leadership lineup for the next five years. The current leadership should rescind the decision to admit capitalists to the party, which was mainly advocated by Mr Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin , and enshrined in the party charter at the 16th congress, the letter suggested. The conservative camp also urged competitive elections for central committee members and even the party secretary - an indication of its discontent with the Hu leadership. 'Just putting several corrupt officials into jail and rolling out a few welfare programmes aren't going to change the fundamental ills,' it said, jabbing at two of Mr Hu's pet projects - health reform and fighting graft.