The Sleeping Giant Wakes

June 08, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

Nanjing, China -- The sleeping giant has woken up and is stumbling about, exciting a lot of people and scaring the hell out of half the world. ''Red China,'' as we knew or imagined it, no longer exists. It has been dismantled, but so far there is nothing to replace it.

Life is better here, much better, for most of the people most of the time. The economy, official figures say, is growing at the astonishing rate of 10 percent to 15 percent a year. The drive into Shanghai from the airport is like a bumpy procession through ceremonial arches of construction cranes, miles of them. The broken roads are lined by fancy signs advertising the 30-story apartment buildings, townhouses and ''villas'' under construction all the way to smoggy horizons.

China must be the largest construction job in the world now. I am tempted to say the largest since the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, or perhaps the Great Wall, but it is bigger than those were. In one of the great ironies, China has met and surpassed the goal of Mao Tse-tung's disastrous ''Great Leap Forward'' in the late 1950s -- it is the world's largest steel producer.

China is also the largest customer for Boeing airplanes and probably for American architects. At the moment, 40 percent of the world's foreign investment is going to China. It is estimated that infrastructure contracts -- expanding the airports, fixing those roads and putting in AT&T telephone systems -- will total $600 billion by the year 2000.

Taking the train to Nanjing from Shanghai, you see thousands of homes being built in villages and farmland as trimmed as any in the world, but you also pass by people scavenging in garbage dumps or living in ratty collections of small boats along the grand canal system that predated roads in eastern China. In Nanjing, I came upon a traffic accident involving a truck and a motorbike. People on the street rushed out with pots and bowls to collect the gas and oil dripping from the mangled bike -- to sell or to use themselves.

Things are obviously much worse out in the far country west of the prosperous eastern coastal corridor that includes the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou. The official People's Daily has been reporting small stories that add up to big trouble under headlines repeating the phrase ''rural unrest.'' That seems to include demonstrations, murders of corrupt officials, clan feuds and smuggling in areas bordering the old Soviet Union.

''The security management situation remains extremely grim nationwide,'' said Ren Jianxin, a high Communist official who is president of China's Supreme Court, on the Sunday I walked Nanjing Street in Shanghai. ''All official and legal organs must strengthen the force of their blows and mercilessly attack serious criminal activity and serious economic crimes.''

''Party Makes It Clear It Will Maintain Order Among Its 900 Million Peasants at All Cost,'' was the headline in a Hong Kong paper after a meeting of the party's Committee for Comprehensive Management of Social Security. The headlines on other pages included: ''IBM Doubling China Workforce'' and ''GE to Invest $500 Million in China.''

The words ''social security'' do not mean what Americans think. The newspapers here were talking about crime. China does not have anything like our Social Security or unemployment insurance -- ironic; they're supposed to be the socialists -- and that is one of the reasons there is so much fear of instability as large numbers of workers are laid off during the privatization of grossly overstaffed state industries.

The fear of local revolt or rebellion is at the center of the government's stubborn resistance to American notions of human rights. What seems natural to us -- freedom of speech and assembly -- is to the aging leadership here a foolish invitation to the disintegration of party and country. Whether we liked or not, it was the communists who finally created a united China at the beginning of the 1950s.

Now the great trick for whoever ends up running China after the passing of Mr. Deng is to try to keep the country together politically, while turning over economic decision-making power to provinces and cities. The Deng reforms have already led to an exodus of country people from the interior to share in the new prosperity of the boom cities on or near the coast. The reforms have brought other symbols of free enterprise -- prostitution and beggars everywhere, radio talk shows that stay away from politics by sticking to money and sex, and a rising interest in religion. (My wife and I attended a crowded mass, one of four held that day, in the perfectly restored old Shanghai cathedral.)

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