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CHINA: THE GIANT AWAKENS : Six Voices of the New China: From Capitalists to Artists

June 15, 1993|William D. Montalbano


In Nanjing, no one is closer to the cutting edge of change than Wang Shunqing. Last May 8, she took a deep breath and opened a restaurant on East Beijing Road, naming it Yi Yuan after her daughter and featuring Sichuan food because that is where her chef is from.

"I am 40 years old, but I am young at heart and I wanted to do something for myself," said Wang, who had been an office worker. With savings, she rented a storefront, decorated it with her husband's help, trained a staff of young waitresses in home-sewn green jackets and nervously threw open the doors.

"At first I was very tired, but now I'm getting used to it," Wang said, waiting for the lunch crowd in a six-table emporium clean enough to eat off the floor. Early returns are encouraging.

"In the beginning we took in 500-600 yuan ($100) a day. Now it is around 1,000 ($200). Will I get rich? I hope so."


On the rural outskirts of Beijing, about 40 young modern artists from all over China live in a kind of ad hoc commune in houses they rent from rich farmers. They have drawn admiring glances in art circles and stern admonitions from police, who shut down their inaugural exhibition an hour after it opened.

"Ten years ago, this place would have been impossible. Nobody would have dreamed of abandoning their fixed job--the iron rice bowl--the security and the ration cards that came with it," said Zhu Baoqi, not his real name, who is one of the artists.

Like the rest of China, the art world is all changed now, said Zhu. "Here, people believe in freedom and anything that has to do with it. Freedom of art, freedom with women, freedom with liquor," he said. "Most of the people in China today don't believe in anything but money. If they say they believe in communism, they're lying or crazy."


For long years during the Cultural Revolution, Shen Baozhi was obliged to make umbrella handles in a rectory that Communist zealots turned into a factory. Shen, 67, is a Catholic priest, and he is back at work now as chancellor of the Shanghai diocese.

I chatted with Shen while a young priest said Mass for about 150 worshipers in Mother of God Cathedral. Catholics are now free to practice their faith as members of a politically correct Catholic Patriotic Assn. that has no links to the Vatican.

Shanghai's Catholic community is China's largest, with about 140,000 believers--1% of the urban area's people, Shen said. There are 30 priests for 60 churches.

"Once again we do all the things Catholic parishes do: religious instruction, weddings, funerals," said Shen, "but, of course we are an association, not a church. We do have contacts with different types of Catholics around the world. We believe almost the same as they do but combine Chinese characteristics with other features."


Zheng Keqin, 45, wears the same bright blue team spirit jacket as the rest of the 5,700 workers at the Shanghai Erfangji Co., where he is chairman of the board and general manager.

Zheng presides over great economic adventure at what used to be the plain-vanilla No. 2 Textile Machine Factory, the sort of Chinese institution where a visiting reporter would walk into a room full of overstuffed chairs and bureaucrats, be greeted with the dreaded words, "Let me give you a brief introduction," and know with sinking heart that another afternoon would die without a single decent quote.

Now, Zheng is leaning across the table, flanked by a factory public relations man and three workers. "So what's on your mind?" he asks politely. Hallelujah.

Like the company he heads, Zheng is a symbol of the new China. He started as a factory hand in 1979 for 45 yuan a month. Now he makes over 1,000 yuan a month. Erfangji is now a shareholder company, owned in various proportions by the Chinese state, foreign investors and Chinese private investors.

"Selling stock is a logical and important source of capital for expansion," said Zheng. "In the past, the government directed us what to produce. . . . Now we adjust production to demand. As long as production matches the market, the profits and assets increase."

In 1984, the company made a profit of 20 million yuan with state-directed production, Zheng says. Now, under China's new "socialist market economy," old No. 2 is coining money: profits of 135 million yuan.


Keeping up with the Wangs? In China? Don't laugh. Sun Zhaiwei is feeling the pressure.

Ten years ago, university professor Sun, now 52, moved to a new apartment complex built on the site of an old Nationalist airport in Nanjing. It was so modern that foreign visitors were taken to see it by proud city fathers.

"Now the foreigners no longer come because there are so many others so much nicer, and we original residents are divided into two groups: those who have moved away to a better place, and those who are staying and are investing heavily to fix up their apartments, up to 10,000 yuan in some cases," Sun said.

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