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Visit to a Chinese `millionaire'. If the government ever gives the signal that unbridled capitalism is acceptable, Mr. Hong will gladly become the king of the moon-cake manufacturers.

By Dorothy S. ZinbergSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 1987

Chengdu, China

THE day began unpropitiously. At 7 a.m. the dense, sepia smog was thicker than it had been during the first three days of my visit to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in the People's Republic of China. The chronically dusty city was gloomier than usual. I could barely distinguish the two graceful old people whom I had watched floating through their tai chi exercises on previous days. The streetlights illuminated the large particles of grit in the air - a combination of soot from burning bituminous coal, industrial pollution, and probably the cigarette smoke that was everywhere.

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Chengdu was to have been the ideal city in which to learn about China's Great Leaps Forward since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), particularly about its accomplishments in science and technology. The city boasted more than a dozen institutions of higher education, including the internationally known Sichuan University and Sichuan University of Science and Technology and two medical schools - one conducting important research on the chemistry of traditional Chinese herbal medicine.

Electronic industries are thriving (along with many other small industries responsible for unpleasant air quality). Several hours' ride beyond the city, the country's major nuclear fusion laboratory is reputed to be carrying out advanced research. In addition, an experienced American journalist in Peking had said that it was imperative to meet the commissioner of science and technology to gain an overview of the rapid changes taking place in Sichuan, a province so populous that were it a county it would be the seventh-largest in the world, larger than France. A visit to each major institution stood high on my list.

But no one had warned me that National Day, Oct. 1, the 38th anniversary of the communist revolution, would be celebrated much like bank holidays in Britain - for days before and after the holiday itself.

For almost one week I had been wandering around to museums and historical sites, usually of great interest, but hardly what I had prepared for so arduously. As a visiting scholar to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I had assumed that, as in the previous weeks in Peking, I would be scheduled to lecture at local universities and research institutes. Plans had been under way for more than a year, so it was with no small amount of dismay that after finally meeting my interpreter, Mr. Liu, who had been sent by the academy, I realized that he did not have one science-related activity in store for me. Instead, he mumbled something about everyone's being away for the holidays and that we would visit a farmer's factory.

Once more I pleaded for an opportunity to visit the academy, but it was not to be. Liu said again, this time more firmly, ``We go to farm.'' I relented. After all, I had heard a great deal about the rapid social changes since farmers had been allowed to market their own crops, use the profits to go into business, and build their own houses.

I woke the driver (who would go to sleep as soon as the car stopped), and climbed into the academy's 1980 Shanghai, a behemoth that looked like a pre-World War II Cadillac. Equipped with lace curtains on the back windows, underneath which lay a chicken feather duster that along with the curtains had collected a measurable amount of dust, the car plowed murderously through the dense crowds of pedestrians, bicyclists, and trucks that packed the road.

Somewhere just west of the city, the car veered sharply to the left onto a dirt road, forcing the hapless passers-by into the fields. We were faced with an incongruous landscape. Small, smokestack factories interspersed with one-story red brick houses seemed to be growing at random out of the acres of densely cultivated plots. We approached our destination - a compound that combined several shapes and sizes of small buildings built around a courtyard - via a driveway through the cabbages that appeared to have been designed by a freehand artist - not exactly the entrance I had envisioned to the new, capitalist enterprise. This was to be the first of many surprises.

As we drove into the courtyard, which was strung with laundry, I noticed four, one-room attached buildings. All at once several friendly faces emerged from the first building on the left and I was ushered into the third (here a bed was hidden behind a partition) where a small group quickly assembled - the owner's wife, daughter, a friend of the family, the head salesman, the daredevil driver, and my interpreter, all within a space not more than six feet square. As we were settling into the ritual of sipping jasmine tea, a motorcycle zoomed up to the open door, and a sturdy, exuberant figure who resembled a young Chairman Mao dashed into our midst.