Saturday lunch at Zhong 8, a restaurant famed for its southwestern Chinese cuisine, is a relaxed, noisy affair as young couples and tables full of families tuck into their food with familiar Chinese gusto.
Over a meal of sour rice noodle soup, braised mushrooms, crispy pork belly, and fried silkworm larvae (a regional specialty), four 20-something professionals talk freely about their attitudes toward the Communist Party – and why it doesn't mean much to them.
Guo Wei, who runs the server at a small software company, joined the party when he was at university "because that's what the best students do" as an additional mark of their status.
Today, though, he says, "I don't have strong feelings about the party, and the last time I went to a party meeting was two years ago, when I was still a student." It was a lecture on national affairs and party policy, he remembers, followed by a discussion. "The best thing about the meetings was we got to know our teachers and other students better," he says.
From time to time he pays his party dues, – about $15 a year – but there is no party cell in his firm, and "in privately owned companies there is no difference between members and nonmembers when it comes to promotion."
His friend Li Chunyan, striking in turquoise nail varnish, finds herself in different circumstances, working in real estate for a state-owned company.
"In those sorts of firms, party members are considered an advanced group, and you need to be a member to get ahead," she explains. So for the past 18 months, she has been trying to join by attending party meetings and handing in regular written reports about why she wants to join and how she is "getting closer to the party," she says. "It's difficult."
She volunteers that she also has some idealistic reasons: "Party members have to show more self-discipline, and they do more to help needy people, or if there are disasters," Ms. Li says. In a country where nongovernmental organizations are often still suspect, the party is the safest channel for civic participation.
"Party members play a more active role solving problems, and that's the kind of thing I'd like to do," she says.
Bao Yongxing, a long-haired former fine arts student who now works as a website designer, would never consider joining either a state-owned company, where he says that the prevailing conformism means that "you just have to follow the ladder, step by step," or the party). "Once you're a member, you have less freedom and you have to watch what you say," he says, and that's not his style.
The party means little to Qi Xin, who develops mobile-phone applications. "The party is too distant from us, and I don't have much connection with it," he says, hunched over his food. What bothers him most about the government? "Internet censorship," he shoots back. "As an IT engineer, I need to visit foreign websites, and they are not always easy to access."
None of the four see any reflection of their own values in the party that rules their lives. "The party's values are basically concerned with how to keep the party in power," scoffs Mr. Bao.
Mr. Guo is even more scathing. "When the party was a revolutionary party, it used values such as liberty and equality and fraternity and justice to overthrow the government of the time," he says. "But since it has been the ruling party, its main concern has been how to stop other people using those same values to fight against them."