"I get my wages whether I have ideals or not," wrote Peking worker Yu Qiushi, 27. "We have talked of the communist ideal for so long, and yet the country is still so poor and the lives of the people so bitter. We can't eat ideals."
A few years ago Yu might not have dared speak such thoughts.But last week Yu's burst of candor was printed in an official newspaper, the Worker's Daily, as part of an extraordinary effort by China's leaders to confront openly the widespread cynicism that has all but destroyed youthful idealism in China and threatens the country's future prosperity.
Another offical newspaper, Shanghai's Wen Hui Bao, gave a brutally accurate summary of what it called a "crisis of confidence," something the Chinese previously have only been talking about amoung their friends.
"Some people think Marxism-Leninism no longer works," the paper wrote. "They are unwilling to study it any more. In school, political lessons are not well received. Offices and factories often hold political and theoretical study classes in a happy-go-lucky fashion.To them, they are just occasions for killing time."
Conversations with Chinese of different ages and occupations indicate that such cynicism and doubt affect most severely young workers and former students in their twenties and thirties. Many have dead-end factory jobs with little chance of advancement, and long waits for better housing, and improved family life. Others wait months or years to be assigned work, only to find that they must accept menial jobs as clerks or maintenance workers or, even worse, leave cities altogether for a rural assignment.
Just what the peasants who live in the countryside think of their lot is harder to determine. The newspapers print fewer of their complaints, leaving the impression that the crisis of confidence is an urban phenomenon.
Peasants apparently are happy with recently raised grain prices, but many of them, particularly young ones, still want to move to the city and may consider the disaffected young urban workers spoiled.
The Workers' Daily in particular has tried in recent weeks to discuss frankly the ill humor among its readers. The newspaper said it has received many letters like Yu's, which suggests that workers are not willing to exert themselves anymore.
"While most people in China are becoming more and more confident in the country's socialist modernization program," the newspaper wrote, "some are losing their faith as a result of difficulties that were bound to crop up and because their proposal problems cannot be solved quickly."
A European diplomat with several Chinese acquaintances here said: "After the euphoria of the fall of the Gang of Four," the Politburo clique that supported unpopular austerity policies, "it had to be expected that people would begin to realize things weren't going to get better very fast, and there would be great disillusionment."
The official press, confronting sour letters to the editor, has this time been careful to avoid the overblown rhetoric and high-flying promises of the late 1950s and 1960s, which produced this generation of cynics.
"There are many problems in various areas that still need to be solved. They include imbalance in the national economy, price and financial problems, bad management and losses in some enterprises, and difficulties in people's daily life," the Worker's Daily said.
Officials and technicians with special skills and responsible jobs say they feel less discouraged although they are more skeptical of government promises and doubt that the economy will improve quickly.
"There are more kinds of food available now," said one Peking official in his late thirties, "and parents now have a chance for their children to go to university." It is a chance usually restricted to bright students who can find a good high school to prepare for the college entrance examination, but those who do pass -- about 300,000 last year -- also express great optimism about the future.
Yu, the young worker who wrote to the Worker's Daily, said he volunteered in 1968 to do construction work in Heilongjiang, in the cold northeast near the Soviet border.
"But as time went on, I lost confidence," he said. Despite hard work, he said, his state farm was seriously mismanaged and operated in the red. Workers' health deteriorated, and few improvements in living conditions were made.
Yu finally arranged in 1977 to return to Peking and get a factory job. "I feel deeply that our generation's road has been rather rough," Yu said.
Shanghai's Wen Hui Bao newspaper blamed the excesses of the Gang of Four and other past leaders for making youth feel disappointed unhappy and agitated." Such youth, "stood a better chance of learning the truth" than people still in the leadership who blindly follow Marxist dogma without seeing what works, the newspaper said.
These assaults on the "whatever" faction -- those who allegedly argue that the leadership should do whatever the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung said -- appear designed to fit a scheme to purge Mao's remaining close disciples from the ruling party Politburo.
Analysts here expect a Communist Party Central Committee plenum sometime this year will further erode the influence of such leaders as former Peking commander Chen Xilian and former Mao bodyguard Wang Dongxing. The leadership appears to hope such changes will assure a doubting population that the disruptive political campaigns and purges of the Mao years will not be repeated.
What the country really needs, said one longtime diplomat here, is "a little economic improvement, a raising of standards by a discernible bit, then confidence may gradually return and some of this gloom may lift."