Slender, demure, and unusually self-composed, Zhang Li seems to be just the kind of young intellectual the Communist Party of China is looking for these days.
In an interview, Zhang Li, not her real name, provided insights into why a young Chinese might join the Communist Party as well as into the sense of mission and elitism which some party members apparently feel.
A recent university graduate now in her mid-twenties, she has had her application to the party approved and hopes to enter the organization formally next year. She is already paying monthly dues of about one dollar, which come to 3 percent of her monthly salary. She works in a government office.
Because of the secretive nature of the party, many Chinese are reluctant to discuss their membership, much less their party activities. Despite her apparent openness in discussing the party and her decision to join, Zhang Li had to be assured that her real name and work unit would not be identified.
Although Zhang had positive things to say about the party, her superiors apparently might object to her discussing the party in any way, especially with a foreigner.
In the interview, Zhang said that membership in the party is a way of reminding oneself that one is not an ordinary person. She said the party gives its members documents that outline party decisions in advance of their announcement and are not available to nonmembers.
"It's as if you know something earlier than other people, and you're supposed to study the documents and take the lead in their application," she said.
"Actually, I'm not very interested in politics," she said. "There's a danger in being involved in politics. My philosophy is just to behave well."
She said it was important to "treat your neighbor well," adding that this was an idea Confucius had, too. She said a student who is a party member is not an ordinary student but should help others.
Zhang may not be entirely typical. Another young woman of about the same age argued that most students who joined the party did so for selfish reasons having to do with promotions and good job assignments. Zhang left the impression that she may be more idealistic and intelligent, but not necessarily better informed, than some of her contemporaries who are joining the party.
Party membership also means it is easier to obtain permission to go abroad, Zhang said, and she does want to travel.
Zhang described party work as demanding and said it consisted largely of performing tasks that no one else would perform and doing so without complaint. Although she did not elaborate, these tasks are basically thought to include basic organizational work of a menial type, such as setting up microphones for meetings and putting up the wall posters if there is a new public campaign.
Several years ago, when the party's image hit a low because of the damage wreaked by the Cultural Revolution, not many people were interested in joining, she said.
"But nowadays, it's different," she said. "Some people see that it's still very promising."
Starting last year, it became easier for students and other intellectuals to join, she said, mostly because the party is beginning to allow more of these individuals into its ranks. The minimum age for membership is 18. Zhang said the party maintained a high standard for membership. In her university class, she said, the party accepted only three out of 60 women students who applied. She will be on probation for a year, as is customary, before the party makes the final decision.
In her application for membership, Zhang had to say why she wanted to join and that she would uphold and advance party ideals and movements. She and others who are close to entering the party were introduced to party members at a meeting of about 40 persons, including nonmembers. The person who introduced her described what were considered to be her strong points and weak points. After a discussion, the chairman asked if the members present approved of her, and there was an unanimous show of hands for approval. No one ever disapproves at this stage, Zhang said.
Once a person applies for membership, she said, the frequency of meetings may vary from once a month to once a week or sometimes even twice a week.
Asked how she thought the role of the party would change now that some sectors of the Chinese economy are growing more independent of party control, Zhang said she had not thought about this before.
Asked about nepotism in the party, she said she was not very concerned about the problem. "I don't think it can ever be curbed," she said. "It happens everywhere."
Asked why the party seemed to recruit many more men than women from universities, she said that men tended to be more active and to take leadership roles in their classes.
"I think they do a better job than girls, especially in the university," Zhang said.
Asked about heroes, she produced the names of party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang but did not seem enthusiastic about these choices. She said that the two were "very brave in trying to find the most suitable way for the Chinese to carry out economic reform."