Copter built by town defies gravity of Chinese rules


March 08, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

DAGAO VILLAGE, China -- Inside one of the brick factories that have sprouted in this village's wheat fields sits an apt symbol of the startling pace of economic development here these days: a helicopter, assembled by the settlement's former farmers from imported parts.

The lightweight helicopter -- said to be the first of its kind made in China -- represents a huge technological leap from the primitive enterprises that typify rural industry here.

As the Chinese economy roars along these days with double-digit growth, such high-tech leaps are hardly unique to this village of about 400 families about 20 miles southeast of Beijing.

Rural areas across the country -- particularly those well-positioned along China's coast or in the suburbs of big cities -- are bursting with new, sometimes relatively advanced industries.

Twenty million rural enterprises, their output growing by 30 percent a year, now account for more than a third of China's production and almost half its industrial employment.

But many of these industries remain rudimentary, and these are seriously polluting rural China. A recent national study says rural enterprises are the leading source of industrial waste around China's three largest cities, Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin.

In Dagao, unprotected workers tend a 19th-century forge, turning out machine parts amid billows of unfiltered exhaust. Effluent flows into roadside ditches. A chemical fertilizer plant sits by a school.

But Dagao aims at a more advanced, if not cleaner, future.

Just four years ago, the village considered itself blessed to have a dozen simple workshops.

Among its most profitable enterprises then was one in which young women stenciled English warnings -- "This is not a toy" -- on plastic bags at a penny a bag.

Profits from the plastic bag factory and other enterprises already had enabled the entire village to abandon its traditional, one-story hovels for rent-free apartments in new six-story buildings with central heating and plumbing.

Most villagers also had acquired color TVs and washing machines, just like Chinese urbanities.

All this was achieved at a time when a national austerity campaign had slowed China's economic growth.

Four years later, Dagao boasts 50 factories, including six ventures with foreigners. It employs hundreds of outside experts and laborers.

Dagao's workshops make clothes, window frames, medicine, machine parts and oven smoke hoods. South Korean investment enabled mechanization of the plastic bag operation.

Village enterprises now rake in about 10 times their 1990 revenue, says Wang Yi, one of its leaders. Villagers' incomes have almost doubled in the last four years, with many now acquiring telephones and air conditioners.

Then there's the two-person helicopter, put together late last year by villagers under the watch of hired aviation experts from Beijing.

Dagao spent $50,000 buying its 8,000 parts from the U.S. through a Chinese businessman in California after the village decided it "should aim high for high tech," Mr. Wang says.

The helicopter's already flown eight times, says Mr. Wang, who survived its inaugural flight 1,000 feet up. He claims that potential Chinese buyers want to use it to fight fires, spray fertilizer, supply remote sites and forecast weather.

Its price is about $90,000, or about half what it would cost in the U.S., says Zhang Wei, the village's U.S. partner.

"Dagao is very courageous," Mr. Zhang says. "It shows you can do things that ordinary people think are impossible."

Trouble is, Dagao got way ahead of itself -- and Chinese authorities.

It can't sell the helicopter until it's been certified by Chinese officials. But China doesn't have procedures to test civilian helicopters, and Mr. Zhang figures that will take another 18 months.

Meanwhile, Dagao's 22-foot-long flying machine sits in an otherwise empty brick hangar.

Not to worry, says Mr. Wang, who already plans on building a heliport at Dagao.

As he confides this, a jumbo jet flies over toward Beijing's airport, prompting a joking suggestion that someday Dagao might build such craft. Mr. Wang looks up at the passing plane and just nods knowingly -- without the slightest trace of a smile.

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