Mainland billionaire Liang Wengen says he wanted to join the Communist Party more than two decades ago because membership gave a young man a better chance of finding a wife - especially a pretty one.
Now a delegate to the party's 18th national congress, the 56-year-old founder of China's largest construction machinery maker, Sany Group, said party members were considered to be better people with more ambition and motivation in those days and thus enjoyed more social respect.
Though fewer people share such logic today, many private businessmen, once banned from joining the party, pursue selection as a congress delegate in the hope of making their voices heard in the Central Committee.
The ongoing 18th party congress has 27 delegates from the private sector, compared with 17 five years ago and seven at the 16th congress a decade ago. Before that congress, private business owners were barred from the party.
Despite the change, private businessmen account for only about 1 per cent of the 2,268 delegates to this year's congress, even though the private sector accounted for 60 per cent of the mainland's gross domestic product last year. That's up from 30 per cent in 2002 and 50 per cent in 2007.
"I hope the percentage of private entrepreneurs gets bigger, but to have this today is already not easy," Liang said. "Ten years ago we were not even allowed to join the party."
Liang applied to join when he was at university but he did not become a member until 2004.
On Sunday, he denied media speculation he would become the first private businessman to enter the Central Committee, which has about 370 members. Though quite a few businessmen have joined it before - including then Sinopec chairman Li Yizhong and Haier chairman Zhang Ruimin - they have all been from state-owned enterprises (SOEs) or collectively owned companies.
Wang Dong , the chairman of Dayu Water-Saving and also a congress delegate, said: "The top leadership has been recognising and supporting the development of private enterprises in many ways in recent years, especially in terms of politics."
Zhou Dewen , chairman of the Wenzhou Small and Medium-sized Enterprise Development Association, said the rising number of delegates from the private sector meant the status of private businessmen was improving. But "they're still a small group since the congress is still dominated by officials, so in fact they cannot exert much influence".
In his report on the opening day of the congress on Thursday, party general secretary Hu Jintao pledged to guarantee legal protection, fair market competition and equal access to productive inputs. He also said more state-owned capital should be invested in key areas related to national security and the country's economic lifeblood.
"I believe more living space will be given to private businesses after the 18th party congress," Zhou said, adding that SOEs had been favoured in the past three years.
In this year's list of China's Top 500 Private Enterprises, issued by the All China Federation of Industry and Commerce, the top 10 are mostly manufacturers. But only a handful of the 73 Chinese companies on the Fortune 500 List of the world's biggest companies are privately owned, with the three mainland firms in the global top 10 being SOEs Sinopec, China National Petroleum Corp and State Grid.
But Wang said things looked to be improving.
"I'm very confident about the private sector," he said. "I believe more private companies will enter major areas of the economy at a faster pace after the 18th party congress."
Liang said he wanted to see the market being given a greater role in the distribution of resources, free of government intervention.
"The percentage of SOEs in the economy should keep decreasing," he said. "It will be good for China."
Private business owners were banned from joining the party until its 16th party congress in 2002, when "outstanding people from other social classes", including private business owners, were made a source of potential members.
In a speech in 2001, then party general secretary Jiang Zemin called such people "constructors of the cause of Chinese-style socialism" and demanded for the first time that they be given equal political treatment.