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China Sweeps Problems Under the Rug

Asia: Preparations for Clinton's arrival in Xian put some out of work.

June 25, 1998|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

XIAN, China — To prepare for President Clinton and his huge entourage's arrival here on their first stop in China, local police closed several big sidewalk markets where unemployed workers sold household supplies and food to earn money. Bicycle rickshaw drivers, evocative of China's impoverished past, also were banned from areas the president will visit.

"President Clinton coming here may have some benefit for the government," said Ling Wenfang, 36, one of the sidewalk peddlers evicted in the crackdown that began a week ago. "But all it did for us was disturb our life."

Until the police moved in, Ling, who lost his job with a road-building company two years ago, said he earned the equivalent of $100 a month selling soft drinks and ice cream from his wooden cart next to the Jinghua Shangri-La Hotel, where the White House press corps has been installed to chronicle the Clinton tour.

But now, Ling has become yet another soldier in a veritable army of jobless in this historic, dusty, polluted second-rank Chinese provincial capital and military industrial center.

Xian is a study in contrasts. It is remembered as China's greatest capital, home of the Sui and Tang dynasties that once rivaled Rome and Constantinople in power and grandeur. According to some accounts, Xian, at the height of its glory in the 6th and 7th centuries, may have been the world's first metropolis with a population exceeding 1 million.

Inside its high city walls, which still stand, lived traders, artists, craftsmen, merchants and a large foreign community. Religions that flourished here included Buddhism, Zoroastrian fire worship, Nestorian Christianity and Islam.

But today, Xian also is plagued by high unemployment and survives mostly on tourism fed by memories of its once glorious past--this was the home of China's first emperor, and his spectacular legacy includes an excavated terra cotta army on the march. The city's present jobless woes, rivaling those of China's northeastern rust-belt cities of Shenyang, Changchun and Harbin, occasionally erupt into public protest.

By clearing sidewalk markets like the one next to the Jinghua Shangri-La Hotel, Xian authorities have ensured that the American president and his trailing camp will not be exposed to this growing urban problem, a side effect of China's painful transition from a state to a private economy.

To eliminate what they consider a backward and anachronistic aspect of the old China, authorities banned bicycle rickshaw drivers from the central areas of the city. But the drivers staged a protest and will be allowed to work side streets and then return to main thoroughfares after Clinton leaves.

In other efforts to spruce up Xian before the president's arrival this evening, officials closed stores selling pirated U.S. films on video discs. They draped construction sites with brightly colored cloth.

They couldn't exactly hide the many military bases, service academies and army factories that underpin the economy of the region surrounding Xian. But the Chinese ensured that the president would not see them, even though, as Tai Ming Cheung, a Hong Kong-based expert on the Chinese military, noted: "Xian is very important in terms of military industry.

"It was one of the key centers for the so-called Third Line created by Chairman Mao [Tse-tung] in the 1960s when the Chinese were afraid of Soviet invasions and relocated a lot of military facilities to the hinterland," he said.

Under attack by Republicans in Washington who claim he allowed U.S. high-tech satellite companies to share sensitive technology with the Beijing regime, Clinton cannot afford to be seen hobnobbing with the People's Liberation Army or visiting its many military-industrial offshoots. "I can tell you unequivocally that there is not one military-related event on this whole trip," a Beijing-based diplomat said.

Xian boasts one of China's most advanced space-age centers, the Xian Satellite Sensing and Control Center. It is the pride of the country's military and civilian scientists. The center reportedly has the ability to track and control China's own satellites as well as keep tabs on those of other countries, including the United States.

Several U.S. aviation and aerospace companies, including Boeing and Pratt & Whitney, have joint-venture manufacturing operations here that are housed on military installations such as, in Boeing's case, the huge Xian Aircraft Industry Co., a military unit that employs thousands of workers making bombers and fighter aircraft in addition to civilian products.

Pratt & Whitney, in partnership with Israel's Wertheimer Group and Xian Aero Engine Co., earlier this year opened a new plant in one corner of the sprawling Xian Aero factory, a state-owned plant that employs 16,000 workers in civilian and military capacities. Beginning this fall, the plant will produce precision forged compressor blades for jet engines, including those used on Boeing 737, 757 and 767 aircraft.

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