Zhang joined the CASS in 1991 as an Assistant Researcher after getting a PhD. By 1993, if not for political reasons, he should have been promoted to the next rank. He explains how the system works:
The position at CASS (research grade) is comprised of four ranks: Researcher, Deputy Researcher, Assistant Researcher and Research Intern, respectively corresponding to senior, deputy senior, middle and junior ranks. According to regulations at CASS, fresh PhD graduates can join as Assistant Researcher. Two years later, they can apply for promotion to Deputy Researcher. At the end of 1993, I can apply for a Deputy Researcher position. Although I haven’t published any articles in China after 1989, I have already published one major work, one translated work and over ten articles before the ‘June Fourth Incident. In 1993, my English work was also due to be published. According to the norms at CASS, one book or just one to two influential articles would be sufficient to get you to a Deputy Researcher position. Despite my plenty of research, I was not promoted because of my insistence on political principles.
He applied for a promotion in 1994, but was rejected again. This had financial implications, and between 1995 and 2000, he ventured into businesses, which included opening two schools and one private enterprise. But throughout this period, he was still officially affiliated with the CASS, and his plan to start a private university in 2000 made his relationship with the CASS closer. It is under this background that he applied for a promotion again in 2000, only to fail once more.
Between October 2001 and January 2002, he went to a university in Michigan as a visiting scholar. Upon returning to China, he started working on the sensitive book From May Fourth to June Fourth. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, he made applications for promotion, which were all unsuccessful. As a result, he had been an Assistant Researcher for a total of 19 years, from 1991 to 2009.