A visit to China: a people struggles to progress

CHINA, the world's largest community, is today struggling both to find its own internal cohesion and to establish a new relationship with the outside world. Mainland China, site of the earth's oldest continuous society and repository of some billion Chinese of various anthropological origins, exerts a powerful gravitational pull on the smaller satellite Chinas on the islands of Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and the farther-flung communities of the 28 million ``overseas Chinese.'' Tiny Macao, for centuries in Portuguese hands, is being ingested into the mainland's control. Hong Kong has negotiated a novel ``one-China, two-systems'' pact that will attempt to preserve the island's capitalist energies while it is held in the security orbit of the mainland People's Republic of China when the British lease on the New Territories lapses in 1997. Meanwhile, the Republic of China on Taiwan works intently to preserve its Western links and its claim to legitimacy as the rightful government for the mainland.

The tensions between the Chinese community's feudal and bureaucratic past and its faster-paced industrial and technological future were on full display during a month-long study tour of the several Chinas undertaken by a dozen members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, including this newspaper's chief editorial writer.

Much was impressive: Hong Kong's brassy assertiveness as the South China Sea's mercantile hub; Taiwan's sober industriousness that has led the island, with some 20 million people, to amass foreign-exchange reserves of $57 billion, nearly six times as great as the mainland's. More on the satellite Chinas later - though it should be noted that the adventurous overseas Chinese may account for some 20 percent of the outside investment that is reforming the mainland's economy.

It is the mainland itself that shows the greatest magnitude of change, if only because the challenge has been the greatest. On its periphery, in the cities opened to foreign visitors, one sees modern buildings, new roads.

In the eight years since Peking's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, launched a modernization and liberalization campaign, the number of Chinese living in abject poverty has reportedly been cut in half, to 100 million, mostly in areas not open to Western visitors. Some 19,000 mainland Chinese students now study in the United States - Marco Polos in reverse - to gain technological and managerial skills the mainland needs, particularly to help catch up after the tragic years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which disrupted education, soured confidence in the socialist leadership, and permitted China's traditional rivals Japan and South Korea to race ahead in material progress.

In rural areas, where farmers now enjoy the right to market freely what they grow beyond a modest minimum crop for the government and for seed, reforms have brought relative affluence. Many farmers are building private homes. Diversion of farmland to other uses, such as home building, is leading to a reduction of cultivated land in China at a rate of 1.6 million acres a year. This diversion, along with an increase in population, means the amount of cultivated land per capita in China is less than a quarter-acre, or only 33 percent of the world average - raising the prospect of a serious food shortage again in the near future.

In urban areas, market economy reforms have proved slower and more difficult to effect. The infrastructure of roads, power plants, and communications is decades behind. A phone call from Shanghai to Peking can take hours to put through. Electricity shortages make production lines erratic, with disastrous effects on quality control. Accounting procedures are so rudimentary that investors must take a flyer when deciding to put a stake in China.

The Chinese people can be wittily engaging. Fully 10 percent of all Chinese are studying English. Schools often require listening to Voice of America to hone verbal skills. English clubs meet on Sunday mornings in China parks to practice the language. Yet the visitor can be aware of a latent hostility against foreigners, too - a slap against an automobile, for example. One wonders at the contrast between jubilant, gaily dressed schoolchildren and the drab attire of their parents: What is lost when that line of adult conformity is passed? In commercial cities like Canton (Guanzhou) in the south and Shanghai in the north, a few young people appear in stylish Western clothes; stores display stereos. Yet the Chinese masses cannot afford these emblems of Western affluence, or they lack the special foreign currency to acquire it.

Maybe too much can be made of the mainland's visible progress.

The boom may be misleading. China's surge in tourism after the Deng reforms has already slowed down greatly - largely because of the inadequacy and inflexibility of the state-run travel business. To get foreign currency, the government in effect now rips off visitors, routinely charging them double the charge for native Chinese. Tourism had accelerated at an average rate of 21 percent a year from 1980 to 1985, but growth in tourism fell off to 8.2 percent last year.

First-class hotel rooms in cities like Shanghai had been barely able to keep up with demand. This year Shanghai will increase its hotel space by 40 percent, while tourism will increase by only 10 percent. This means China will shortly have a glut of rooms in some regions and a dearth elsewhere. China may have a modern China-run hotel like the White Swan in Guanzhou, but it must still rely on Hong Kong or European businesses to make most of its first-class enterprises work. It is nowhere near ready to receive the modern business traveler, on whom China's quick-step economic hopes have been based.

But it is the state of China's political and cultural readiness that more greatly limits the mainland's modernization advance.

More about this tomorrow.

First of a series

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