Peking — To this newcomer to China, the once-egalitarian and intrigue-ridden land of Mao Tse-tung appears to be putting on a surprising new face. It is evident in the journey from Peking's dreary international airport to the plush high-rise rooms of the Great Wall Hotel.
The bland socialist architecture of the airport suggests the leveling influence of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The vastness of its empty corridors and its musty smell hint at the mammoth scale of the communist experiment here and the staleness of its theory and practice.
That first late-night trip along the country road leading from the airport to the city revealed a more traditional and graceful China. The tinkle of bicycle bells and the clop-clop of donkeys pulling carts of turnips confirmed that, despite the grand Maoist dreams of China's former leaders, life here is on a human scale.
But on the outskirts of the city, the towering glass facade of the Great Wall Hotel broke the poetry of the countryside. The hotel is an imposing structure 20 stories high. At first glance, it seemed at odds with its environment. But the excitement it generated was palpable. Surely here was the vanguard of the newly modernizing China!
To some observers, though, the Great Wall Hotel is a misfit, a shocking symbol of a nouveau-riche life style, an example of Western materialist culture. It is a first-class hotel that could be found in many of the world's important cities and with equivalent prices. One night's stay costs five to six times the monthly wage of an average factory worker in China; breakfast in the coffee shop , more than a week's wages. Even foreign businessmen on expense accounts comment on the costs.
''Why is this necessary?'' asked a visiting friend, an expert on China, as he enjoyed a linzer torte in the hotel's atrium. ''The only thing Chinese here is the dust on the outside of the windows.''
But my friend was mistaken. The Great Wall's staff, except for the top management and one permanent French chef, are all local Chinese, even if much of the furnishings and much of the food served in its many restaurants are imported.
The staff must be among the most polite and well trained in the country. They were selected from thousands of applicants who wanted to work in China's ''best hotel'' - even if, for now, it caters exlusively to foreigners.
The Great Wall Hotel is a trend-setter for this country as a whole. At least that is the hope of China's modernizers. Few Chinese have gone inside, but their leaders want them to know about it. Chinese can take a tour, and photographs of the hotel's interior are exhibited in a glass case at the head of Wangfujing Street, one of Peking's most popular shopping areas.
In some respects, such a Western-style palace is as far removed from the life of Peking's citizens of today as the Imperial Palace of the Ming emperors was centuries ago. The difference is that China's reform-minded rulers now are committed to economic progress.
Such progress, they promise China's masses, will eventually bring the best material comforts the world has to offer within reach of any hard-working citizen.
Soon after the Great Wall Hotel opened the first of its 1,007 rooms to foreign guests, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang paid a visit. According to a senior foreign diplomat, he showed great interest as he inspected its rooms and suites and the vast spaces of its grand ballroom and indoor swimming pool. Then he gathered together the hotel's 400 employees for an informal pep talk.
''Now you make 70 yuan ($35) per month,'' Mr. Hu reportedly told the staff. ''Next year you will make more than 120 yuan. In 10 years you will be making 900 yuan.''
''But what can we buy with 900 yuan?'' an employee dared to ask China's top Communist.
''You can stay in this hotel!'' Hu shot back. China's leaders have staked their government's reputation on the promise of a better life. The results so far give many Chinese hope for the future.