Young, gifted and red: the Communist party's quiet revolution World's largest political party has consolidated its iron grip by transforming itself and its relationship with the Chinese public Writer Liu Xiaobo remains in detention five months after helping to write Charter 08 â€“ a call for freedom of expression and other human rights in China Link to video: Where is China heading? Jerry, a bright undergraduate, has been trying to join for three years. Hope, pursuing a philosophy doctorate, dreams of changing society. Tina just wanted a job. These young, well-educated, cosmopolitan women are the new face of the Communist party: an institution popularly regarded abroad as ageing, male and moribund. It's become commonplace to contrast China's economic revolution with its lack of democratic progress. Since the bloody suppression of 1989's student protests, political reform appears to have stalled. Last week, in posthumously released secret memoirs, Zhao Ziyang â€“ the reformist leader ousted due to that movement â€“ warned that China must move towards western-style democracy. But the party's number two, Wu Bangguo, ruled that out this spring. Censorship is increasingly sophisticated. A groundbreaking intellectual call for reforms, Charter 08, gained thousands of signatures and was quashed; five months on, one of its authors, Liu Xiaobo, remains in detention. Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, gave a detailed account of torture by the authorities. Now he has simply disappeared. But behind this apparent stasis lies a more complex tale: of an evolving party that has consolidated its iron grip precisely by transforming itself and its relationship with the public. With more than 74 million members â€“ up from 50 million in the early 1990s â€“ it is the largest political party in the world. There are millionaire members, branches in Wal-Marts and plans to open a branch on the first Chinese space station. Senior cadres remain overwhelmingly male, but there is now a compulsory retirement age and even (very low) quotas for women. In recent years, it has concentrated on targeting the best and brightest. The party has largely transformed itself "from a mass organisation designed for mass mobilisation and ideological campaigns, into a technocratic leadership corps", said Professor Jeremy Paltiel of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Paltiel, an expert on party membership, said that in the 1980s recruits were looked down on by peers as careerists and probably second-rate students. Some elite students still consider the party â€“ with its attendant political meetings â€“ boring and irrelevant. But between 30% and 50% apply to join the party. An approval rate of about 5% reinforces the desirability of membership: recruiters seek those with top grades, leadership potential and youthful idealism â€“ albeit feigned in some cases. To rise through the governmental hierarchy, membership is a must. But it shines out for other employers, too. The draw was not your ideological purity, explained Tina; more the evidence of your accomplishments. "To be honest I'm a bit embarrassed," the graceful 24-year-old admitted with a blush, twining a long strand of hair around her finger. "Other people joined because they wanted to help the party and country â€¦ My main reason was because it was very hard to find a job." Spin and polling Outwardly, the party remains rigidly ideological; members are drilled in Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents and current president Hu Jintao's Scientific Development Outlook. Hu has, in fact, stepped up political education â€“ perhaps because of an evident disconnect: to many, what the party really stands for is personal advancement, social stability and national unity. "There's a difference between believing in Marxism and being a party member," one said drily. For the last two decades, the party's mission had been to "maintain the brand but change the content", suggested Anne-Marie Brady, associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Experts have been called in to study political change overseas, culling lessons from New Labour and French and German socialists â€“ and using Gorbachev's reforms as an example of what not to do. "That learning from the west has been brought back into China and used to maintain and enhance the strength of the current political system," Brady said. The government has modernised its techniques as well as its cadres. It is now an assiduous user of opinion polling and sophisticated spin techniques, showing greater responsiveness to public opinion. Unlike its models overseas, it does not require votes: but it needs at least tacit support. Allowing people more space to challenge the status quo may, in fact, help to perpetuate the system, providing outlets for frustration and dissent â€“ as long as there are no attempts to organise independently; what the party fears most are alternative power structures. When public outrage becomes widespread and dangerous â€“ over tainted baby milk, for example â€“ authorities often seek to assuage it before stamping it out. Bloggers may be allowed to have their say before the shutters come down. Official heads may roll. New initiatives may be announced. The demands of Chinese citizens have carved out greater â€“ albeit variable â€“ space to criticise lower-ranking officials or hold them to account, engage in public affairs, debate ideas and take part in an emerging civil society. Yet lawyers, activists and dissident intellectuals are routinely harassed and threatened. Even parents who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake have been bullied and detained for protesting about shoddily built schools. "If [people] don't touch the line, they can do a lot of things. But there is a line there," said Hope. She's a softly spoken, thoughtful young woman, who chooses to meet in an artsy cafe near one of the country's top universities, where as many as two-thirds of her classmates are party members. Like others, she asks to be identified only by her English nickname. But she is candid about her initial hesitation when invited to join, and her ultimate decision to do so. "It's easy to be a critic, but then maybe you can't change society. You can do more inside the system than without," she said. "Students can see its problems, but still think China can do much better under its leadership. They want to go into the system and maybe make a little change. Maybe some people have an underlying motive: more desire for power. But quite a lot really want to do something to change the country." For most, she thought, a priority was freedom of information and the rule of law; only some wanted multi-party elections. "Chinese people don't hope to go the western way â€“ but hope for a powerful government to restore social justice," she suggested. Using the D-word It is hard to generalise about what a diverse nation of 1.3 billion people without freedom of expression really think; and impossible to know what they might believe without government censorship and propaganda. But the Asian Barometer study of political attitudes, the most comprehensive to date, came up with some surprising findings. In mainland China, 53.8% believed a democratic system was preferable. Then came the kicker. Asked how democratic it is now, on a scale of one to 10, the Chinese placed their nation at 7.22 â€“ third in Asia and well ahead of Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. "Chinese political culture makes people understand democracy in a different way, and this gives the regime much manipulating space," concluded Dr Tianjin Shi. To the confusion of some western observers, Hu's speech to the last party congress used the D-word more than 60 times. "They would like to talk about democracy with Chinese characteristics. My problem is that no one really can offer a definition of what that is," said Dr Yawei Liu of the Carter Centre's China Programme, which works with Chinese officials to improve elections and civic education. "If you look at civic activism, what's taking place in cyberspace and what's going on in 600,000 villages in China [with grassroots elections] they all seem to indicate there's still a push from the top and most importantly from the bottom to expand political reform â€¦ The problem is how grassroots efforts could be elevated to a higher level and whether the leadership has the wisdom and courage to move forward with an agenda." Since the mushrooming and then suppression of the Tiananmen democracy protests amid a split between reformists and conservatives, China's leaders have concluded that cracks at the top can only lead to disaster. Maintaining consensus â€“ at least in public â€“ has been central to their operation. If anyone is pushing for major reform, it is not evident. Hundreds of millions in China already go to the polls to choose low-level representatives. But efforts to promote and expand village elections â€“ widely lauded in the 1990s â€“ appear to have stalled. Recent experiments, such as the use of deliberative democracy in setting budgets and awarding a greater say in the selection of local party secretaries, offer clues to possible routes towards or alternatives to a multi-party system. Yet so far, they stand alone. Optimists suggest that economic rights lead inevitably to greater hunger for political freedom. But others fear that capitalism has created vested interests that entrench the system. Professor Sun Liping, a sociologist at Tsinghua University â€“ and the doctoral supervisor of vice-president and heir apparent Xi Jinping â€“ warned earlier this year that China's greatest danger was not social instability, as authorities say, but instead "social decay", with rising inequality and alienation. "The fundamental cause â€¦ is the marriage between political power and capitalism," he wrote. "The two have joined hands in China â€¦ We thought power would be constrained in a market economy. But we have now seen that power has acquired higher value and greater space for exertion." If you can't beat 'em "The economy is improving, society is improving but there is no improvement in elections," complained Yao Lifa. He could be the mirror image of Tina and Hope: a 50-year-old, largely self-educated man from the provinces who tried to beat 'em, not join 'em. He began competing for a seat in his local people's congress in Hubei in 1987, when the election law was first promulgated. After 12 years of harassment and dogged campaigning as an independent candidate, he won. Later he was turfed out again. He has been detained on "at least" 10 occasions, often for promoting voting rights. The elections are fake, he argues, because the system can't tolerate genuine democratic contests. "The law only states that people have the right to vote; there are no rules to protect this right. When your right to vote is harmed, you can't even set up a case in the court," he said. "But there is no reason to say western democracy does not fit China. Chinese authorities say people's education level is too low and our economy is still not developed. But how was the economic and educational situation in the west hundreds of years ago?" How many compatriots share his views is another matter. People in China complain bitterly about official corruption, inefficiency and brutality. But â€“ as the government reminds them â€“ multi-party elections do not guarantee good governance or stability. After decades of turmoil, many seem willing to settle for a quiet life and economic wellbeing â€“ at least for now. There's little sign that the current economic downturn is leading to widespread social unrest â€“ still less open opposition to the government. "Basically, I think they're doing a very good job," Tina said earnestly. "China's so big, but it's not wealthy. The leadership have helped it develop fast. I looked at the G20 meeting in London and felt kind of proud of the government; foreign countries really hope that China can help. "Maybe other people think oh, China, there's no freedom. But it's not easy to make everything perfect." China at the crossroads: Young, gifted and red - the Communist party's quiet revolution | World news | guardian.co.uk ******************************** The new China for you. Contradictions galore! And yet, they toe the Party line like robots on display!