Chaotically, China Rejoins the World

June 09, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

Shanghai -- There are taxis and private cars now in China, but drivers don't stop at red lights. That is as good an indicator as any of where the biggest country in the world is going and how fast it's going there.

The odds are, of course, that China will be very much like everyplace else. One day, the Chinese should be able to pretty much say what they want politically in a free-enterprise culture where education and talent count for almost as much as connections, and you can hope that your children will find the happiness you pursued. How long will it take them to catch up? I asked that question again and again inside and outside the country, and the answer was always the same: ''Two or three generations.''

Although this is a country making automobiles and color televisions now, it is still a country that has suffered war and famine for as long as history has been written and closed itself to the world for centuries at a time. Infanticide (drowning girl babies because boys are favored) and other vestiges of feudalism are still common in rural China. Before Deng Xiaoping began to loose the bonds in 1979, the country was ruled for 30 years by a dictator who went mad, Mao Zedong, the launcher of ''cultural revolution'' who came as close to crushing a civilization as a man could.

Are Mr. Deng's changes reversible? ''No,'' I was usually told, though a few cautious types reminded me that Mao and the communists were able to reverse history in 1949 in places like Shanghai, severing modern men and women from the modern world.

For the moment, the old and the new of postwar China co-exist in this city of 14 million people and more new housing construction than I have ever seen in one place. There were at least three different kinds of people crowding Nanjing Street, which is once again being called the Fifth Avenue of China, looking at the microwave ovens and VCRs stacked in the windows of chrome and glass temples of new consumerism on the last Sunday of May.

There were older men and women in dark blue and gray Mao suits, who may have liked the street better a few years ago when there was no neon and almost nothing to buy. There were country people in for the day, many of them wearing rubber barnyard boots. Then there were younger shoppers in jeans and bright shirts, who would be called ''yuppies'' in much of the world, enthusiastically recycling the earnings and salaries of a new wave of Chinese entrepreneurship and foreign investors, both needing educated young Chinese to run their projects.

The young ones pushed into the shops, crowding around counters where sales clerks are often positioned three feet apart -- an old communist way of eliminating unemployment. Some of the clerks were sleeping peacefully with their heads on the counter, perhaps dreaming of the disappearing days when workers could not be fired. Now China is close to the point where they, like us, will be bragging about how many jobs were eliminated last week.

Walking past the biggest of the stores, Zhan Ling, I was turned around by a car horn right behind me. A Mercedes 300-SL was on the sidewalk, pushing shoppers aside before stopping in front of the store. Like Ming Dynasty royalty in a sedan chair, a man and woman, well dressed if you like flash and --, popped out of the back seat to check out the merchandise. Movie stars? The owners? Party officials?

At the railroad station the newly rich, briefcase in one hand, cellular phone in the other, step through and over seated or sleeping clusters of country people, sitting dumbly after coming to the big city for work or just to see if it looks like it did on television. An estimated 50 million ''migrants'' -- we would call them ''homeless'' -- go from city to city seeking work, trying to decide if they were better off back in their villages.

What happens to those Chinese and a billion others could dominate the news and geopolitics of the early 21st century. There will be, I am sure, plenty of trouble to report -- as the Chinese and many American diplomats tried to tell President Clinton as he pondered ending China's most-favored-nation status because of the inherent American right to tell other peoples how to live their lives (a right we once pressed with Bibles and opium).

The Western countries, including the United States, are pumping in cigarettes and whiskey, but we now generally restrict our moralizing to executive orders and congressional proclamations. There is an ongoing struggle in China between what we call ''freedom'' and what they call ''stability'' -- and, like it or not, the Chinese, leaders and led, are obviously determined to try to resolve their current problems, for good or evil, without consulting the modern missionaries of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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