BEIJING - It's always a safe assumption in China that anyone you meet who has a responsible job in a government-backed institution is a Communist Party member. Indeed, schools, state-owned utilities, or local government agencies still have a powerful official on the payroll whose title is "party secretary" for the workplace.
At the same time, private-ownership capitalism is flourishing mightily - and relations between Communist officials and business owners are often close.
Has the Chinese Communist leopard completely changed its spots?
Visiting China as part of an academic exchange program shortly before the 15th anniversary of the June 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square, I was eager to learn what I could about the role of the Chinese Communist Party today.
I got a glimpse during a dinner hosted by three bright Chinese 30-somethings. Like most Chinese people who've had good English instruction, our dinner companions "Joseph," "Fred," and "Billy" all have pseudonyms they use with foreigners.
Joseph and Fred are successful business executives. Billy works for a government agency and is almost certainly a Communist Party member. Joseph and Fred might well be: The most recent Party Congress decreed that private business owners can be party members.
Our discussion roamed over several areas of life in modern China. But whenever the subject was a bit "political" the executives deferred to Billy for the party line before giving their own opinions. In that conversation, and in others with presumed party members here and in Shanghai, our Chinese hosts discussed the recent Party Congress. One major party decision was to shift the emphasis in the nation's investment and development strategy as much as possible away from the heavily developed east-coast provinces and toward those in its neglected western interior. Another was to undertake small but significant expansions of what our hosts called "individual rights" - but notably not "human rights." For example, until recently China still had harshly enforced laws governing which city or county a person could live in. Now, the controls have been lifted altogether.
Party members with whom we talked elsewhere indicated they thought the recent changes had been equitable, as well as strategically wise. From these conversations, it emerged that a key role the party plays these days is to find - and change - the balance between competing interests inside China. "It's sort of a nationwide infrastructure that oversees the country's modernization," one party theorist confirmed.
Professors we met here and in Shanghai told us "the best" of their students were already party members. "They are the ones you know you can rely on to get any extra task done, inside or outside the classroom," one said, citing their help in implementing quarantine measures in the SARS epidemic last year. He said around 50 percent of the students at his university are party members.
Concerning their attitudes toward the rest of the world, these professors - presumably party members - certainly didn't speak in terms of any global contest between communism and capitalism. On the contrary, they were eager to strengthen ties with the West and increase their often sophisticated understanding of Western concepts of political liberalism. They seemed generally confident that they could engage with such ideas on their own terms. This almost certainly is related to the fact that many ethnic Chinese from around the world have shown faith in the "motherland" by investing heavily here.
It's too early to know how China's new wealth and confidence will affect its stand on world affairs. But around the Pacific Rim Beijing's influence has already grown a lot, and China's future weight in world affairs could look unlike any "Communist expansion" most Westerners have ever envisioned. Indeed, if existing trends continue, China might not even be recognizably "Communist."
• Helena Cobban, a senior research fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Practical Ethics, is working on a book about violence and its legacies.