JOINING the Communist Party used to be a ticket to success for young Chinese. Now, fewer think so.
For the young reporter from People's Daily, the official newspaper, there was no question but to join after her graduation. Both her parents belong. A member of the Communist Youth League, she was always told membership was an ''honor.'' And most of all, she needed a job, and the paper was the only Beijing paper hiring. ''This was the only offer.... Now, more students opt out of working for the party because they want ... more opportunity,'' she explains.
A fellow graduate from People's University in Beijing is one of them. Preparing to join a foreign joint-venture company, the young man says he declined an invitation to join the party.
''I know only a few people who want to become party members.... It takes a lot of time and wouldn't get me anywhere,'' he says.
Corrupt, fractured, and bereft of ideology and respect, China's Communist Party is once again scrambling to stay viable in a changing China. Although 55-million people strong and claiming to gain more than 1 million new members yearly, the party is losing credibility and is under threat from widespread scandal.
The party, the world's last major Communist bastion, is under siege from within and without. In what Western diplomats regard as an important development during the last week, a barrage of petitions observing the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4, 1989, has angered authorities and triggered a crackdown against leading dissidents and intellectuals.
About 15 activists have been detained, arrested, or have gone missing since last week when the first of several petitions, signed by 45 leading Chinese scientists and intellectuals, was sent to President and Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin. The appeal, similar to one which helped fuel pro-democracy demonstrations six years ago, urged the ruling autocrats to shift their hard-line stance on the 1989 protests and curb official bribery, public embezzlement, and corruption.
The petitioners, who included Wang Ganchang, designer of China's first atomic bomb, urged the party to reverse its ''counter-revolutionary'' or subversion sentence against 1989 demonstrators and release them. They also called for freeing all Chinese political and religious prisoners and an increased tolerance of independent views.
Among the dissidents rounded up in recent days is Wang Dan, a 1989 student leader who has reportedly gone on hunger strike in protest; legal expert Chen Xiaoping; activist Liu Xiaobo, who was organizing a petition; Huang Xiang, a signatory of last week's first petition; and Wang Xizhe, who served 12 years in prison for helping found the Democracy Wall movement in the late 1970s.
The petitions are ''significant both in terms of their timing and because they represent a public manifestation of the fact that the issue doesn't just go away,'' says a Western diplomat, who wouldn't rule out that the appeals might have been sanctioned by officials hoping to readdress the 1989 issue.
''Without political reform, China's can't begin to tackle the problem of corruption,'' says a newspaper editor who lost his job for protesting in 1989.
''The 1989 pro-democracy movement started because of official racketeering and corruption,'' says one dissident. ''Now [it is] ... more serious than then.''
A decaying party
The party may still influence the daily lives of many here through their employers, neighborhoods, and schools. Increasingly, though, senior leaders acknowledge that widespread contempt for corrupt officials is decaying the organization from within.
For months, a party campaign to purge itself has been under way, leading to the expulsion, arrest, and even execution of scores of low-level officials for bribery, smuggling, and other white-collar crimes. In 1994, the party's organization department reported that more than 1,000 cadre -- including full-time party, government, and state enterprise officials -- were disciplined, according to the New China News Agency.
Then, in a move last month that set urban and rural China abuzz, the anticorruption campaign reached into higher corridors of power. Chen Xitong, Beijing's powerful Communist Party secretary of Beijing, was dismissed only a few weeks after the alleged suicide of deputy mayor Wang Baosen, Mr. Chen's closest associate. Wang was believed to be implicated in several shady real-estate deals.
The shake-up grew out of a heightened antigraft crusade in the Chinese capital that has ensnared scores of top officials and even their families. Mr. Chen is believed to be under house arrest while his son, Chen Xiaotong, who runs a Chinese-Japanese joint-venture hotel, is also under detention.
Pitting the central authorities versus a powerful municipal machine, the anticorruption drive was widely read as a show of force by President Jiang.
Last week, there was a further shake-up in official ranks, including the resignation of Yuan Mu, the government's hard-line spokesman during the 1989 protests and suppression.
Through the crackdown, Jiang, the hand-picked successor to ailing leader Deng Xiaoping, not only asserted his authority but also gained more stature among the Chinese public, which resents corrupt high-level officials escaping punishment. This week, the central government unveiled new guidelines to prevent corruption and nepotism in official appointments.
''Corruption is on everybody's lips,'' says a European diplomat who has traveled widely in rural China recently. ''Corruption is potentially explosive because it reaches into every level and has caused so much resentment. All it needs is a spark.''
But with rumors of more purges pending in Beijing, central authorities have temporarily suspended the clampdown to avoid political unrest and prevent it from escalating into a wider power struggle that could undermine Jiang's delicate rule, Chinese analysts and Western diplomats say.
Jiang's drive to cement his grip is believed to be prompted by reports of Mr. Deng's failing health and the delicate period in the weeks before the Tiananmen Square observance. ''It's quieted down for right now because they can't afford the instability,'' says a Western diplomat. ''But there must be a lot of corrupt provincial leaders quaking in their boots.''
Corruption all over
Still, corruption is so pervasive and is believed to touch so many senior leaders, that the party is finding it hard to cope, Chinese analysts say. In what could foreshadow further high-level purges after Deng's death, members of the paramount leader's family are reportedly under investigation for embezzlement and other graft.
With the party's prestige on the wane, Beijing's commands and threats are dulled by tempting opportunities to get-rich-quick in far-flung provinces. A party meeting of senior leaders, reportedly scheduled for this summer, is expected to reinforce the center's will to curb corruption.
The removal of both Beijing party secretary Chen, and Mr. Yuan, the former spokesman, has also raised hopes among many intellectuals that the leadership may soon have to reconsider its stance on the 1989 protests and thus prompt some political change. Chen, who was Beijing's mayor six years ago when millions of Chinese took to the street to call for cleaner, more representative government and then were massacred in a military offensive, is a symbol of that tragedy that still overhangs China.
''Since June 4  we have been trying to tone down the wound. We are politically numb,'' says an economics professor who was involved in the protests. ''But one day, we know there will be a vindication.''