``It's important to join the party if you want to know what's going on -- if you want to discuss the issues and be included in decisions.'' The young man making these remarks graduated near the top of his class in the computer science department of a major university. He is the son of a high official, but his Communist Party membership was still pending. He hoped it would come through soon.
``I wrote a sincere letter showing my support for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-Tung thought,'' he said. ``It's required with the application.''
At this point, one of the young man's classmates spoke out:
``There are many reasons [why] people want to join the party at this school. Mainly, they want to get ahead,'' he said in the presence of a school official who was taking notes.
The second young man would soon be going to Tibet, where he would study philosophy and religion. He said he had little interest in politics or party membership.
The two students' comments may be typical of the attitudes of a remarkable generation now coming out of China's universities.
Their political commitment is uncertain, but some have a fresh interest in party membership, and the party is accomodating them. Others are outwardly skeptical and find that it's possible to go their own way without jeopardizing a meaningful life for themselves.
Last year, more than one-fourth of the graduating class at prestigious Peking University was admitted to party membership before graduation. At nearby Qinghua University, the percentage was only slightly lower. At People's University, widely regarded as a party school -- since it was founded by the Communist Party and is a recruiting ground for entry-level party jobs -- some 47 percent of the graduating class joined before leaving school. Almost everyone had applied.
These facts were offered by the students themselves, but they were generally confirmed in an interview with an official of the Communist Youth League. The official said that, in 1985, roughly 20 percent of the graduating classes at certain key universities had been recruited into the party before graduation. This compared with only 1 percent in 1981, he said.
But party admissions for students are not rising everywhere. According to young Chinese, in the majority of China's 1,000 institutions of higher learning pre-graduation membership is still very limited, though applications are up. Official statistics are unavailable.
The party's decision in 1984 to speed up the recruitment of young people is part of its attempt to revitalize its leadership and raise its intellectual standards. Now, about 3 percent of China's student population of 1.4 million are party members and about 4 percent of the party's 41 million members have some college education.
But the party's chief recruiting ground is not the universities; it is still the Youth League. With some 49 million members between the ages of 14 and 28, the purpose of the league has always been to provide its parent organization with fresh blood.
In 1984, some 560,000 youth members joined the party, a little more than 1 percent of the league's total members. This was almost a 100 percent increase over 1983. The 1985 figures are not out yet but are expected to show an even larger increase. Even the Youth League, described by one Chinese as a kind of patriotic boy-scout organization, has had to take into account the more apolitical interests of China's younger generation. One measure of this new pragmatism is a shift in Youth League programs from political lectures to every-day advice on how to succeed under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's reforms.
Last year, the league's most popular programs were rural speaking tours by rich peasants on the topics of ``how to get rich on contract lands'' and how 10,000-yuan families (the so-called ``rural millionaires'') should behave in the community.
``In the past, we only emphasized serving the people and we neglected personal interests. Now we do both,'' said Xing Kuishan, director of the research bureau for the league's central committee in Peking.
The party's model youth program has also come down to earth. Xing said that his office, which runs a mass-media campaign promoting model citizens for Chinese youths to emulate, was now choosing successful factory managers and directors as examples -- instead of the highly mythologized lives of soldiers and workers used so much in the past. Recently, Xing said, they publicized the case of a self-employed businessman who was generous with his time in helping others to establish their own businesses.
The apolitical interests of aspiring party members is widely discussed, even by the new members themselves.
``You must understand,'' said one recent university graduate. ``The party is the dominant institution in Chinese life. If you're ambitious and want to get to the top, you must join.''
Some of the older youth (over 25) are not so impressed with their younger compatriots' readiness to join the establishment.
``Many people today think the country has entered a new period, and they want to be a part of that. That's understandable,'' said one engineer in his late 20s. ``But many of these people know only what the party has taught them. They don't know their own history, and they aren't as wise about politics as the previous generation, which experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). They do not understand China's present situation in light of what has happened in the past,'' he added.
Others point to a lack of political consciousness among those who are older as well.
``Many of my friends are party members, but they don't believe in communism, not even in socialism,'' said a university graduate in his early 30s who has not sought membership.
``For them, the party is like a fast bus. If you join the party, it's like taking the bus to your destination. But I prefer to move forward at my own pace by foot or on a bicycle. Everyone still blames the party for the Cultural Revolution, though now people are more concerned with the future, and they don't pay attention to the past,'' he said.
The charge that today's college students are politically naive was heard from many corners of Chinese society during several student demonstrations last fall. The students took to the streets in Peking, ostensibly to protest alleged economic imperialism by Japan. But they also criticized the government's spending priorities in its reform program and especially the lifestyle and privileges of the ``princes and princesses,'' the offspring of high officials.
``These days, even those people with a bachelor's degree and party membership have difficulty rising up in the ministries. In the more prestigious agencies, such as the Ministry of Culture, you must also have connections, preferably through one of your parents,'' said one recent graduate whose friends took some of the best jobs in government.
``As for me, I prefer to stay outside the party. It's a freer life, even though the opportunities are more limited,'' he said. Last of a series. Previous articles appeared March 3 through 7.