Beijing street reflects turn to capitalism Contrast: The capital's main boulevard connects Mao Tse-tung's monument to socialism and the spires of his capitalist nightmare.

October 28, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In cities across China today, middle-aged laid-off state factory workers who were once the backbone of the nation's socialist economy sit along the sidewalks peddling everything from bicycle bells to binoculars.

Briskly passing them by -- literally and figuratively -- are the country's increasing number of the nouveau riche, busily chatting on cell phones and embracing the materialism Mao Tse-tung deplored.

Perhaps no place in this city better captures the transition from communism to a more market-oriented economy than the main boulevard, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, in a section that stretches from Tiananmen Square to the China World Trade Center.

Mao built Tiananmen in the 1950s as a monument to socialism. On one side of the 100-acre concrete desert lies the nation's gloomy, hulking parliament building, the Great Hall of the People. On the other: the equally dreary, Soviet-style museums of history and revolution.

Three miles down the road stands the China World Trade Center, a 37-story glass and steel office complex that epitomizes the aspirations of Beijing's emerging bourgeoisie.

Built less than a decade ago, the tower is home to the offices of multinational corporations such as Salomon Bros., Merrill Lynch and Ford.

In the basement sits a shopping center where one can purchase the latest fashions at Burberrys and Alfred Dunhill of London while sipping cappuccino from a coffee shop called the Daily Grind.

Separated by ideology and several decades, Tiananmen Square and the China World center are the nation's past and likely future.

In between lie the complexities and contradictions that define urban China today.

The traditional gray brick homes with tile roofs that once lined the boulevard have been leveled. In their place have risen modern behemoths such as the Ministry of Communications, which boasts a Tang Dynasty-style roof atop a modern smoked-glass exterior and looks like Darth Vader designed it.

Migrants in worn suit pants and soiled shirts guide three-wheel bicycles laden with everything from mattresses to mannequins past Jeep Cherokees and the black Audis so popular among Communist Party officials.

After young hustlers retire from a day pushing pirated copies of Windows 98, elderly women emerge with pink, green and red fans to perform a Qing Dynasty-era harvest dance in an empty parking lot near the glow of a neon Bridgestone tire sign.

What people make of this urban kaleidoscope depends to some degree on whether they see themselves as beneficiaries or victims of the changes sweeping China.

A descendant of the old rickshaw drivers, Li Songling, 41, has pedaled a pedicab along the boulevard for most of the past two decades, watching other people's living standards rise. Riding toward Tiananmen Square one afternoon, he mops his brow with a yellow hand towel, turns to his passengers sitting beneath the blue and white canvas canopy and paints a dark portrait of modern China as a once-principled socialist society unraveling in its headlong pursuit of wealth.

Prostitution, drug abuse and begging, practically unknown in Mao's time, are common today. In a country that once guaranteed people an "iron rice bowl" -- a job regardless of performance -- legless men and blind children work the section of the boulevard where foreigners live, using the only English words they know: "Hello" and "money."

Rich allowed to prosper

China's new, competitive economy, Li says, allows the rich to prosper through connections while leaving the poor to fend for themselves.

"Now people keep the fire of anger inside them," he says, as the bells beneath his pedicab jingle. "Once there is a trigger, the fire will spread."

Arriving at Tiananmen, Li gestures through the haze of air pollution that blankets Chairman Mao's mausoleum, which resembles the Lincoln Memorial and sits in the middle of the square.

"People are nostalgic for Mao Tse-tung," Li says. "If Mao were still alive, it would not be as chaotic."

If Mao were still alive, Michael Liu, 32, probably wouldn't exist. At the very least, he wouldn't be sitting in a cafeteria in the basement of the China World center laughing about how he wants to buy a Mercedes Benz. A graduate of Beijing University -- the Harvard of China -- Liu works as a sales manager for a German steel import-export firm.

In the 10 years since he graduated, he has watched his annual salary rise about 100 times to nearly $15,000. He drives a Volkswagen, bought his home from the government last year, travels to Germany annually and dreams of running his own company. When Liu looks at China through his wire-rimmed glasses, he sees a land of opportunity where life continues to improve.

"We will only have a good future," Liu says. "I have no doubt."

Whereas pedicab driver Li is a creature of Mao's China, Liu is a product of Mao's successor, the late Deng Xiaoping. Two decades ago, Deng began to unshackle China's command economy.

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