Wherever Zhang Lianqi goes, he's always sure to take two things with him - a photo of his son and his laptop.
Minister of Health Chen Zhu speaks at a press conference about the new rural medical cooperative system on September 5. [Xinhua]
"I am too busy to take care of or even meet my 15-year-old son, so I need to take his photo," says Zhang, 43.
As a partner with Beijing-based China Rights on Certified Public Accountants Co, Ltd, which employs 1,000 professionals and has several branches outside the capital, Zhang loses count of the number of business trips he makes every year.
Outside the law firm much of his spare time revolves around "writing suggestions for solving thorny economic issues for the government and the Party," he says.
A "liaison" for the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Zhang learns from his colleagues and expert economists on how his profession and the country's economy should be developing.
"Recently, I wrote two reports for the UFWD. One was a warning about economic overheating, suggesting a variety of policies to reduce liquidity and better control credit flows. Another was about a possible stock market bubble," Zhang says.
"The two topics are a little bit big for me, but I think they are crucial. I spent several months working on my papers, collecting material, talking to economists and working on an analysis," says Zhang, who holds a doctorate in economics from Peking University.
He is certain that his two reports will be transferred by UFWD to government departments for reference.
Zhang has more than 10 years experience in private accounting, and earns a decent income, yet he often felt "disconnected from society" until he attended a "theoretical research class" in 2006, which was designed specifically for China's "new social stratum" and sponsored by the UFWD.
"I learned about the country's fundamental economic and political system, the general economic and political situation at home and abroad. My classmates and I also inspected the remote and backward countryside to learn about the national situation.
"Being a liaison for the UFWD, providing suggestions for the government and attending UFWD classes, means I have a communication channel to ruling authorities and can learn about my place in society," Zhang says.
The concept of a "new social stratum" officially emerged in former Party leader and President Jiang Zemin's speech to mark the 80th anniversary of the founding of the CPC in 2001.
He said that since the reform and opening-up began in the late 1970s, a "new social stratum" had emerged.
Its members were the builders of China's socialist cause along with the workers, farmers, intellectuals, cadres and members of the People's Liberation Army, says Jiang.
Things had come a long way from when the CPC was founded in 1921, mainly representing workers and farmers.
Like Zhang Lianqi, Lin Kaiwen is also a member of the new social stratum. Chairman of the board of the Shanghai Kaiquan Pump Group Co, Ltd, Lin also attended the "theoretical research class" in 2006.
"The class helped me learn about state policies and ruling guidelines from a higher level, so I can better participate in political affairs and contribute ideas to the authorities," Lin says.
The annual "theoretical research class" was launched in 2004. Every class has about 50 members - they are mainly workers at private firms, managerial-level staff at foreign-funded companies and self-employed professionals.
Lin Zhimin, deputy secretary-general of the UFWD, says the class is intended "to further connect with and unite the representatives of the 'new social stratum'."
"Through the class, we inform and publicize the new policies and guidelines of the CPC to the new social stratum, learn their thinking, and discover, train and select candidates to form a talent contingent outside the CPC," Lin says.
The UFWD has established a new social stratum talent reserve and a large number of candidates are graduates of the theoretical class. "Currently, we are establishing an evaluation system to recommend people from the reserve to some important government posts."
It is estimated that the "new social stratum" consists of 50 million professionals, who possess or manage capital totaling 10 trillion yuan ($1.3 trillion), according to the UFWD.
Chen Guangjin, deputy director of the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that with economic development, the "new social stratum" is eager to influence policy-making and be more acknowledged in society.
Chen cites Wenzhou city in China's eastern province of Zhejiang, where the private sector is very prosperous, as an example. Private entrepreneurs are trying to win elections for village committee heads, deputies of people's congresses and members of political advisory bodies.
More than 9,000 members of the "new social stratum" have been elected deputies of people's congresses at the county level or above, while 30,000 others have been recommended as members of political advisory bodies at that level or higher.
Lin Zhimin says the successful representatives of the "new social stratum" are always politically astute. They are not only an important force in developing a socialist market economy, but also an active force for developing a socialist democracy.
"Uniting and guiding the 'new social stratum' to participate in politics is necessary for building a harmonious socialist society and extending the Party's ruling foundations," says Lin.
The CPC has a history of consulting the eight non-Communist parties and unaffiliated individuals and organizations for opinions and recommendations on important issues.
"The participation of the 'new social stratum' in political affairs has improved both in quantity and quality," says Zhen Xiaoying, former vice-president of the Central Institute of Socialism.
More members of the "new social stratum" are being promoted to senior or even top government posts, says Zhen.
The most outstanding representatives are Wan Gang, minister of science and technology, and Chen Zhu, minister of health, who were the first non-Communist cabinet appointments since the 1970s.
Wan Gang, a member of the China Zhi Gong (Public Interest) Party, replaced 65-year-old Xu Guanhua as Minister of Science and Technology in April 2007.
A former automobile engineer at the Audi Corporation in Germany, Wan, born in August 1952, was president of Shanghai's Tongji University before his appointment.
"To appoint a non-CPC member to the cabinet is an important move in implementing and improving multi-party cooperation and political consultation," says Lin Zhimin.
China's top legislature in June 2007 approved the cabinet nomination of Chen Zhu, 54, a Paris-trained scientist with no political party affiliation, as the country's new health minister.
Zhang Liangqi says the appointments of Wan Gang and Chen Zhu indicate that more members of the "new social stratum" will be given important government posts. "The 'new social stratum' shall be ready."