A greater wall

Looking back it seems to me that this was a matter we discussed only on trains. It first came up on the afternoon, first-class coach to Shihchiachuang, an important rail junction and textile milling city 150 miles south of Peking.

"Are you a member of the Communist Party?" one of the group asked Chang. He laughed embarrassedly, waved his hands in front of his face and shook his head. No, he was not a member of the Party.

We were a group of American journalists -- "The Gang of Nine" we called ourselves -- traveling with 50 other visitors on an eight-day familiarization tour of China. Chang was our 24-year-old English-speaking guide.

At that time, when we had just met him, he was also a man of great mystery. This was largely because he had already made some funny, irreverent remarks. When the train had stopped, for instance, then lurched ahead again, he had commented: "Ah, the great leap forward!"

"When will you join the Party?" one of us asked. Chang laughed again with the same embarrassment -- perhaps it was embarrassment for us -- and once more shook his head.

"Eventually you will join, won't you." another one of us asked. After all, question-asking was our business.

Chang smiled at us and shrugged. But it seemed to me that the smile now contained a slight trace of annoyance. Perhaps we were asking too many questions.

"Why should I want to join the Party?" he asked. It was as if the Party were a social, rather than a political affair -- and not a very interesting one at that. "Oh, look!" he said. "They're skating." He pointed out the window to peasant children skating on frozen fields. And we moved on to other subjects.

The matter arose again on the return trip to Peking. This time it came up with Mr. Chu and Mme. Kung, who were older and more reserved guides than Chang. Since they did not sit with us, I had gone back to sit with them.

"Tell me," I asked, "how does a person become a member of the Communist Party?"

"It is not something for everyone," Mme. Kung explained.

Mr. Chu nodded his head. He was the most senior of our Chinese and, another journalist had assured me, a Communist Party member. Mme. Kung also seemed very committed. When we first asked how we should address her, she had suggested the word "comrade."

The applicant's behavior must reflect dedication and "the correct political line," Mme. Kung stressed. "A Party member does jobs other people do not want to do," she added.

Again Mr. Chu nodded his head.

"But how does someone get in? What's the procedure?"

"First of all," said Mme. Kung, "the application is discussed with the masses , then with Party cadres."

"The masses?" I asked."Who are they?"

"The masses are the other workers at his work place," Mme. Kung explained.

"And how are they consulted?"

"In interviews," she said. "The cadres are experienced Party members."

"I see." Mr. Chu nodded his head and I nodded mine. I was thinking that to many Chinese this procedure must seem a kind of obstacle they could never get past.

In the next few days I did not think much about Communist Party recruitment, but I did wonder now and then about Chang.

As far as I could discern. China is an enormous bureaucracy, run like a giant corporation. I could see that, for all his nonchalance, Chang was ambitious. Moreover, his irreverence had its reasons. The Cultural Revolution had cost him a university education. I wondered what happened to restless young Chinese of intelligence, talent and ambition. This wasn't a bureaucracy you could just opt out of.

Then we were on a train again. Talking to Chang, the matter of Communist Party membership arose once more. Someone asked if Mme. Kung were a Party member. Chang said he did not know.

"You don't know who's a member of the Party?"

"No," Chang replied. "Why don't you ask Mme. Kung if she's a member?" As he made the suggestion there was a little smile on his face. Perhaps he would use us to find out something he wanted to know.

"And when you apply for membership, you don't talk about it?"

Chang shook his head.

Suddenly I understood something about Chang's embarrassment when we first had questioned him on the way to Shihchiachuang. We had been probing an area that was confidential. Suddenly, too, I get some glimpse of why Chang, unlike the other guides, willingly spent so much time with us. It was a way of expressing dedication and ambition. Because it was something the other guides really did not want to do, being with foreigners showed Chang's fitness for Party membership.

Suddenly I felt a wave of compassion for our young guide.

At the boarding school I attended a group of high school seniors was every year given elite status as floor chiefs in the dorms. Each spring the dean, the house pops and the then-active floor chiefs nominated and trained juniors for the next year's governing board. The boys in the dorms elected five of the eight. Then in a barbaric "tap ceremony" the floor chiefs announced the next year's selection by passing among the assembled boys and tapping their successors.

Naturally, as a junior I wanted desperately to be selected, if not as a floor chief, at least as a nominee. I tried very hard to be good, dedicated, worthy; sometimes that effort obsessed me. I hoped that both the "cadres" and the "masses" would recognize my worth.

Naturally, I was not selected, not even a nominee. It was the first big disappointment of my life -- albeit an ironic one. In the long run being selected would have been far worse for me than being passed over.

Even now, years later, I still disapprove of systems that control you by eploiting your aspirations. And so my compassion flooded out toward Chang. For what was recuitment into the Communist Party, if not exactly the same thing?

This took place on the train taking us from Peking to the Badaling Pass. "Wow, look at that!" someone exclaimed. There snaking through the mountains was The Great Wall.

Before scrambling to the window for my first view of it, I glanced at Chang. Our eyes met. There was a curious instant of contact. I recognized that the great wall was what we had been discussing.

This was the last train ride of our tour -- and the last time that matter was discussed.

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