China's economic success smugly seduces the critics

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 22, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- My friend and his wife are an attractive, thoughtful Chinese couple. You'd like them, but to name them here would bring them trouble.

They're bright and well-educated. They work hard and want to accomplish something with their lives.

Both speak and write English with ease. The husband even has lived abroad for a year.

In short, as part of China's still small but growing urban middle class, they're just the sort of professionals that China needs to continue to rapidly develop.

As such, the shifts in their aspirations over the last few years provide a glimpse into some of the intangible but critical changes taking place among some Chinese.

Four and a half years ago, the man was despondent.

In the wake of the murders by China's army of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators near Tiananmen Square, he turned in his membership in the Communist Party.

At the time, it was not safe for him to tell the party that he was resigning because of the Tiananmen massacre.

Instead, he cited growing corruption within the party, a much more palatable reason because the party admits that it has a corruption problem.

"After Tiananmen," he recalls, "I was totally depressed. All I wanted to do was to leave the country by any means possible.

"I felt like I had missed the last train out and had been left in the killing fields, like in Cambodia" during the genocidal reign of the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

For a while, the man's plan of escape hinged on his wife getting into graduate school in America. It did not matter which school. Then he would find some way to join her.

But the paperwork from U.S. schools took forever. And in the meantime, things began to change deep in their hearts.

The man and his wife, already well into their 30s, realized that if she left for America, they might never have a child.

Then their state work unit offered them the opportunity to move to Shanghai to open a new branch of their enterprise.

In Shanghai, their salaries rose with their responsibilities.

Together, they now make about $2,800 a year -- much more than the average household income in the city and, in terms of actual purchasing power, more like making about $8,000 a year in the West.

About a year ago, they became the parents of a son.

Both work while a young girl -- a relative -- takes care of their son.

As is typical in crowded Shanghai, all four are crammed into a two-room flat, sharing kitchen and toilet facilities with neighbors.

But there's enough money to eat out whenever they like. There's the hopeful and entertaining spectacle of the development boom now sweeping Shanghai.

And instead of dreaming about escaping to America, the man now finds himself thinking about finding a little house outside the city and saving enough money to buy a small car to get back and forth to work.

"It would be worth commuting an hour," he says. "We could have a little garden."

I thought of my Chinese friend's dream the other day at a press briefing during Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's recent visit here.

Wu Jianmin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, tried to shoot down the notion that China's leadership was unduly frightened by its small dissident community.

We're not at all worried, Mr. Wu insisted: "What government with a 10 percent economic growth rate has ever collapsed?"

Mr. Wu delivered this line with such a smug look on his face that it almost begged someone to point out that he need look no further than the island of Taiwan.

There, high growth in many ways set the stage for rapid movement over the last decade toward becoming the first Chinese democracy. Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party hasn't collapsed, but it increasingly is being forced to share power.

My friend would be more than pleased if the Communist Party had to share power on the Chinese mainland. Should a bit of democracy ever come about here, he's more than ready to participate.

But for now, he does not think about such improbable things. Instead -- much to Mr. Wu's great delight -- he thinks of things that were once unimaginable here, his dreams of cottages and cars.

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