updated 10/18/2007 6:14:07 PM ET 2007-10-18T22:14:07

While China's Communist Party leaders gathered for a major conclave this week, April Wen was too busy to notice. The accountant was searching for a job and polishing her English by watching "Desperate Housewives" on pirated DVD.

All life in China once stopped for major political events. But two decades of juggernaut economic growth have given Chinese private lives far less vulnerable to political edicts and control. They can pursue riches, focus on careers and not worry about marching in lockstep with the party.

Wen, 27, felt better English — not the party — would help her find a rewarding job.

"The show is my favorite because the women talk a lot. You can learn so much when they argue," Wen said of "Desperate Housewives" as she stood outside China's biggest trade show trying to pick up freelance interpreting work with foreign buyers. She held a sign handwritten in red letters: "Business Experience! Expert Bargainer."

A private life is something Wen's parents could scarcely have imagined. Less than 20 years ago, communist officials decided where people worked, lived and sometimes whom they married. Most urban jobs were with creaky government bureaucracies or rusty state factories — an "iron rice bowl" that provided lifetime job security and social services but little pay or challenge.

A speech like the one President Hu Jintao gave Monday outlining political priorities would have been mandatory reading in obligatory political study sessions held once a week, if not more often.

The day after Hu's speech, China's state-run newspapers plastered the president on the front page with big red headlines announcing the start of the congress, which is held every five years to endorse policy directions and leadership appointments.

'We have a lot of space'
At a convenience store in Guangzhou, a bustling metropolis at the heart of China's industrial boom, 29-year-old fabric salesman Zeng Jinrong ignored a stack of Southern Metropolis Daily with Hu's picture and its lead story about "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

Asked what the popular party catch-phrase meant, Zeng shook his head, grinned, took a drag on his Double Happiness brand cigarette and paused.

"I really can't explain this. Maybe it just means using a Chinese way to deal with the economy," said Zeng, who said he earns a yuppie salary of about $40,000 a year.

"We have a lot of space to develop ourselves. In the last 10 years, there's been so much change," he said.

That space is far from unrestricted. The party brooks no challenge to its political monopoly. It monitors the Internet and employs an array of police forces to quash any organized groups or individuals deemed a threat. But for those who steer clear of the party's turf, life offers new possibilities.

"I have many choices," said Wen, whose father hated his bus-station manager's job but could not leave it for lack of options. "It's different from my father's life," she said.

A new generation
Like many young workers, Wen has spent most of her career working for private companies that scarcely existed a generation ago but are now the most vibrant part of the economy. She last worked as an accountant at a company that made electric fans.

"I thought the work was so boring, so I quit. I'm a people person. I like to talk to people, not numbers," said Wen, as she waited outside the Canton Fair trade show.

Newfound freedoms not only extend to the urban privileged but to the huge rural population, once forced by government policies to remain in the countryside and not venture into the more prosperous cities. The factories that have made China the world's workshop are powered by former farmers who have left their cabbage patches to make iPods and Nike sneakers.

Feng Xiaoqi said he grew up in a village in southern Hunan province and left home to work in an auto parts factory 12 years ago when he was 15. Now, he said he bounces back and forth from jobs in Guangzhou and Shanghai — the country's commercial capital.

"Life is much better than before. As long as you don't oppose the party, you can do whatever you want," said Feng. A slender man, he wore a crewcut, faded jeans and fake Italian loafers as he waited for a train at the Guangzhou station, where ruddy-cheeked farmers stream into the city lugging bed rolls and suitcases.

Feng said he watched a bit of the Chinese president's speech on television but he could not summarize the major points.

"We're just little people," Feng said as he peeled a tangerine with a yellowish, overgrown thumbnail. "The party matters don't really have much to do with us."

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