On the eve of Clinton visit, a China in rapid evolution Freedom, opportunity beckon as government loosens viselike grip

June 24, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- As the first American president to visit China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Bill Clinton arrives tomorrow in a nation where life has improved in critical ways, notwithstanding the hardships that preoccupy opponents of the presidential visit.

While the photo of a lone man standing off a tank remains a defining image of China for the rest of the world, the picture inside the country is more complex.

A decade after the last presidential visit, by George Bush, China's leaders continue to rule with a firm, sometimes ruthless, hand and to hold about 2,000 political prisoners. But many Chinese enjoy greater personal freedom and economic opportunity than they have in decades.

As the government continues to loosen its grip on China's economy, people have greater opportunity to make money, choose jobs, travel abroad and decide where they want to live than they have had since the Communists took over in 1949.

During his nine-day visit, Clinton will travel to Xian, the ancient Chinese capital, as well as Beijing, the financial center of Shanghai, Guilin in South China and the former British colony of Hong Kong. If he has a chance along the way to talk with people such as environmentalist Liang Congjie and graphic artist Kang Erxu, he will be able to hear directly about the profound changes.

"This kind of freedom is unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago," says Liang, who left his government academic job in 1988 to help found Friends of Nature, one of the nation's few nongovernmental environmental organizations.

Over the past decade, Kang has transformed himself from a drudge in a state-owned company to a successful entrepreneur.

In 1987, Kang worked for a design firm where he had little creative input and earned $24 a month in salary, regardless of the quality of his work. Today, he runs his own graphic design firm, where he oversees five employees and earns more than $4,800 a year while his old company slides toward bankruptcy, unable to compete in China's rapidly evolving market economy.

"Working for the state-owned enterprises didn't allow me to fully use my talents," says Kang, 36, who wears a ponytail, a wispy goatee and a T-shirt emblazoned with the silhouette of a naked woman. "I wanted to design something of my own style."

As the Chinese economy has liberalized, so have many other aspects of society. Tens of millions of people have migrated across the country in search of better jobs, breaking down the government's once-rigid residency permit system. Some couples have thrown off the shackles of arranged marriages, contributing to the country's rapidly rising divorce rate.

Maintaining political control over a population of 1.2 billion as it enjoys increasing personal freedom is a delicate balancing act. After the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators which left hundreds dead, the Communist Party essentially made an unwritten pact with the Chinese people.

Simply stated: We'll continue to raise your living standards as long as you don't try to overthrow us. In a nation that is both increasingly pragmatic and still largely poor, most seem to have accepted the deal.

One need only look to Indonesia, though, to see how quickly such contracts can be shredded. Indonesians put up with Suharto's authoritarian rule for more than three decades, largely because he raised their incomes.

When it became clear he couldn't pull the nation out of its economic crisis, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and drove him from office in less than a year. Suharto's downfall serves as a cautionary tale to Chinese leaders who continue to open up the nation's economy but do little to extend political rights.

Wellsprings of freedom

China's increasing personal freedom springs both from within and outside the country. As more foreign firms have opened offices here, many Chinese have left the security of state jobs and government-subsidized apartments for higher wages with overseas companies -- 24,000 of which are American.

Ten years ago, there weren't many people like Robert Xiao, who works as a manager with Motorola. After Xiao graduated from Qinghua University, China's MIT, in 1988, his only job prospects in the capital were with government agencies and research institutes.

"Somebody would have assigned me something," says Xiao. "I would have had no choice."

Instead, he camped in front of the U.S. Embassy for two days in the rain until he received a student visa. While in the United States, he earned a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Southern California and honed his English.

Xiao, 32, returned to Beijing last year to train Chinese employees at Motorola. He has his own apartment, travels regularly in Southeast Asia and earns more than $60,000 a year, a fortune in a nation where the urban per capita income is about $620.

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