Peking — Have you queued for hours for tomatoes while shop clerks openly chose the best and the juiciest for their friends outside the queue? Did you see a policeman take a bunch of cucumbers from a truck he had stopped for a traffic offense? Are you in love, but too shy to express your feelings?
Or do you just want to have your umbrella fixed? Write a letter to Beijing Wanbao, the Peking Evening News -- latest and most popular of the capital's newspapers
"We get more than 300 letters a day," says Ye Zuxing, a member of the newspaper's editorial committee. "Obviously we can't print them all. We choose the problems we think can be solved, and then we follow up on them. People are beginning to call us the city's nosy and critical mother."
The Peking Evening News, sister newspaper of the Peking Daily, appeared on the city's streets Feb. 15 and has been an instant sellout. Circulation quickly climbed to 566,000, and it still is not always easy to find a copy unless one is at a post office (which serves as the city's newstands) at 4 p.m. sharp.
A slim tabloid with just four pages, the Evening News is crammed with short, often humorous articles ranging from readers' letters to news of entertainment, sports, and the outside world. If it criticizes lazy and rude shop attendants, it also tries to give their side of the story and airs their complaints about rude customers.
Daily life in Peking has improved gradually since the 10-year turmoil of the so-called Cultural Revolution, but there are still many shortages, and the average citizen's temper is not improved when he sees others taking advantage of position and power to win privileges he cannot enjoy.
A recent letter complained of a certain Lu Zhengcai, party secretary of a unit belonging to the city's First House Repair Company. Comrade Lu, the letter said, used repairs as a pretext to build a 72-square-foot room for his daughter and son-in-law, including -- privilege of privileges -- a kitchen linked to the city water and sewer system.
(Many houses in Peking are without plumbing -- hence another complaint aired in the Evening News, the shortage of public toilets.)
The Evening News investigated the letter, found it was truthful, and published it along with the results of its investigation as its lead story Aug. 7. When his house fell down in a big wind, Tang poet Du Fu exclaimed that now he could understand the feelings of all the homeless poor scholars in the realm. How different is Lu Zhengcai, who is no less a personage than the party secretary of his unit, the newspaper exclaimed.
The Evening News has also run a series on how to proceed in affairs of the heart ("be frank, be honest, but avoid hurting the other party's feelings"), interviews with prominent scientists, cultural figures and other achievers, and descriptions of foreign countries.
There has been a series on the postwar history of US presidential nominating conventions written by a Chinese professor at Yale University. An article on Singapore spoke with admiration of the city-state's courtesy campaign. A plastic paperclip on a letter from Japan was the newspeg for a reflection on how neither paperclips nor bicycles have made much progress or change in China since the People's Republic was founded 31 years ago.
A visitor to Tito's state funeral in Belgrade spoke with amazement at how he ran into a party secretary, a former ambassador to China, who had no driver or boryguard and whose wife stood in line for hours to pay her final respects to the late Yugoslav president. "That article got a lot of response from our readers," Mr. Ye commented.
The Peking Evening News itself was an early victim of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Founded in 1958, its most popular feature was a humorous and often satiric column written by three outstanding writers -- Deng Tuo, Wu Han, and Liao Mosha.
Some of the columns contained thinly veiled criticism of the high and mighty in the land, including Chairman Mao Tse-tung himself. The paper was shut down at the very start of the Cultural Revolution. Many of its editors and staff members were placed in prison or sent to the countryside.
"After the downfall of the 'gang of four' (headed by Mao's widow Jiang Qing), there was an insistent demand from the masses that the Evening News be revived. Finally we were able to do so early this year," said Mr. Ye. "Some people love us, some people hate and fear us. As for us, we just like to feel we speak for the ordinary citizen."