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."
(Read More: China Eyes Market Forces to Drive Currency Reform)
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."