The factory worker, in his early 30s, stared at the foreigner who has asked about China's new government.
"I made $27 a month under the Gang of Four. I make $27 under Deng Xiaoping. What's the difference?" he asks.
Three years after the fall of the dogmatic "gang" and official pledges of a more prosperous life, many of China's 960 million people are beginning to doubt the new promises and their governments ability to resolve old difficulties. Conversations with dozens of Chinese and foreigners with unusual access to Chinese suggest a desire on the part of individual Chinese to look out for themselves and ignore the slogans of sacrifice that have ruled Chinese life for three decades.
After a burst of renewed interest in work, and promise of bonuses, following the defeat of the dogmatic Maoists in the leadership in 1976, some factory managers are beginning to complain again of workers absenteeism. Younger Chinese say they are questioning what they get for working harder as inflation, a brand new phenomenon, begins to eat into their occasional wage increases.
"Never before since 1949 have we had such open materialism in this country," said one longtime European resident who has talked to many workers. If effectively used he added, the new mood would lead to new economic strength. Yet it also has increased the amount of open cynicism and personal ambition and shaken the loyalty and discipline of some of the society's most favored citizens.
"Long live the Communist Party. Do you believe that?" one young party member said with a smirk, after a foreign acquaintance had closed the hotel room door. The man's parents were factory workers and party members, usually considered beyond reproach. He had worked hard during long years in the countryside and been admitted to the party at an unusually young age, 22.
Now, four years later, he has a good job and the confidence to talk about his own doubts.
"When I read the newspapers. I am confident," he said, referring to the continual claims of economic and social progress in the official press. "But when I turn and face reality, well. . ."
"The future economic plan looks encouraging, but half the people I know don't believe in it. We consider ourselves lucky to get from one year to the next."
It is impossible to tell how deeply worried the Chinese are about their own futures and how widespread their doubts are. Chinese who talk to foreigners are almost all city dwellers, but say they are expressing feelings found in the countryside, particularly among millions of urban youth who have spent long years at farm labor. Most still express some hope that their worries will be resolved and they are proud of China's diplomatic advances. Yet they say they are discouraged that the sweeping economic changes promised after 1976 have not come.
"A lot of them say that since China has managed to muddle through for 4,000 years, it should be able to continue to do so," said one foreign businessman here with unusual access to ordinary Chinese citizens. "They say "It's day to day, I'll get my piece of the action.'"
"The job I've got now is fine," said the young Communist in the Shanghai hotel room. "Any job you get in the city is a good job, considering all the people who still have to work on the farms."
An official government tour guide in Chongqing grilled a foreign journalist on what he called the most "prestigious" Western careers, an unusual interest in a country where no form of labor is supposed to have more status than another.
The young man was the son of an Army officer. He was part of the elite structure in China that appears to give many of its young members unusual confidence in dealing with foreigners. "I'd really like something with a little more status than tour guide," he said. "I would like to study to be a journalist."
Much of the expressed discontent appears to reflect rising expectations, as the government goes into its second year of promising mayor wage boosts to urban workers and begins a significant effort to increase peasant income.
Forty percent of urban workers and office staff have still been denied any general wage increase over the last several years, however.
Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng, at the recent National People's Congress, acknowledged that prices would be rising. He neglected to confront in his remarks the disappointment and to some extent embarrassment, this development has produced. Copies of an official Peking pamphlet, "Why China Has No Inflation," once widely sold can no longer be found here.
Many Chinese citizens find that, despite recurrent threats of tougher limits on free speech, they can air their grievances even in front of foreigners with no immediate reprisals. This baring of souls has had a deep effect on official literature. The government seems to be experimenting with a device of enormous and perhaps dangerous emotional force -- tales of the personal tragedies of past political turmoil.
Chinese literature in the past year has been full of what some Chinese call "wound stories," tales of families destroyed and hopes dashed by the political purges of the late chairman Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and the 1957 campaign against "rightist." A character in Zhou Jiajuns story, A Special Melody," recalls what happened after he was sent to a work camp in a remote border region, simply for translating some articles about foreigh technology.
"My son was also sent to the countryside, and my wife died. It was claimed she died a natural death, but we all know what that meant then. So in my heart were deep wounds that nothing could heal."
Another character, a woman, saw her father jailed as a "rightist" and her mother die of grief. Later married and with a baby, her husband suddenly divorced her because he was "afraid of being involved in her father's problems."
Thousands, perhaps millions, of Chinese can tell similar stories about their own families. The official literature appears to be designed to show how people overcome their hurts, and renew their enthusiasm for socialism, but the descriptions of the tragedies are so detailed they often leave readers more despressed, some Chinese say.
One reason why hundreds of wallposters and thousands of vagrants are still seen in Peking is that many people who feel they were wronged during the Cultural Revolution are vehemently demanding government compensation.
Their stories turn up everywhere.A plastic surgeon, Dr. Hu Qimin, was assigned to serve as interpreter for visiting U.S. Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. because of Hu's excellent, American-accented English, acquired during study in the United States. Hu confided to people travelling with Califano, however, that his real job was sill running a 90-bed hospital in remote Ningxia, where there was little call for his talent for plastic surgery.
His father had come under such heavy criticism during the Cultural Revolution that the older man reportedly committed suicide. Hu, exiled to his remote post in that same period, told people privately last week but he was still very unhappy there and wished he could be transferred to a large city.
Many specialists like Dr. Hu have been returned to their old post but indicate a fortified disdain for the Communist Party that come from having little left to lose.
"Some of them have said to me, 'what can they do to me, when I've been cleaning toilets for 10 years,'" a foreign engineer said.
The party's reputation has declined generally -- something the official press openly acknowledges -- "simply because it has allowed so many terrible things to happen over the last few years," one young Communist said.
A factory technician complained to a foreign acquaintance that his superiors did not seem to want to listen to ideas he had for improving production. They were stymied by timidity and general incompetence, he said.
"But after the Gang of Four, didn't they remove incompetent managers from many factories?" the aquaintance asked.
"Yes," the technician replied, "and they were transferred to supervise other factories and messed those up."
"At first I thought the way to get a better position in the factory would be to work hard," said another worker. "But working harder and studying harder doesn't seem to get management's attention. All they seem to care about is how often you come to their house and give them a gift. It dosen't have to be very much, maybe some cigarettes, they know your financial situation. But you have to pay attention to them."
"Have you seen a Chinese kindergarten," said the young Communist visiting a foreigner in his hotel room. "Then I don't have to explain China to you. If you want to eat, they tell you what to eat. If you want to read, they tell you what to read. If you want to wear something, they tell you what to wear. It's very bad."
A diplomat here said, "This leads to a chip on the shoulder attitude: 'Raise my salary 30 percent and I'll work harder. They're raising salaries some, raising prices too, borrowing on the future, and if production goes up then it will help them."
Yet after several changes of policy on bonuses in the last few months many Chinese say they are not sure that Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, advocate of the wage increase, can bring off his economic miracle. With the prices going up. "My salary  is enough for me, I'm single, but not enough to take my girlfriend out to a restuarant very often, for a happy weekend.."
"here in Canton," said a Chinese student, "They say if the Nationalists came back, nobody would rally around them. But if the Communists started a new revolution, no one would respond to them either."