Between the Bicycle and the Fax, China Shapes Its Identity

ON the streets of Beijing, the bicycle is king, today as yesterday. Cars swerve to avoid cyclers who seem to flow, as effortlessly as currents of air, around and between the buses, trucks, jeeps, and sedans lumbering down the capital's broad avenues. But enter any of several dozen high-rise hotels or office buildings, and you are in a different world. You can have international-class meals. You can telephone or fax New York at any hour of the day or night. At night, discos are packed with Chinese as well as foreign tourists.

The People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, is full of exhortations about the need to tighten ideological work, to keep free of the contamination of bourgeois liberal ideas. At some street corners, you can see billboards extolling Lei Feng, the model soldier resurrected since last year's Tiananmen crackdown from the years when Mao Zedong thought ruled the land.

It seems a losing battle. Talk to just about any young person about the Lei Feng campaign, and he snickers. Few people openly defy the government or the party. But the dominant mood in China today is one of waiting - waiting for change.

The bicycles and the high-class hotels, the slogans and the public indifference, are some of the ingredients of the economic and political jumble that is China today. In the 10 years since senior leader Deng Xiaoping inaugurated a policy of economic reforms and of openness to the outside world, China has assiduously built up that part of its infrastructure that connects it to the international business community - and a great deal besides.

Midnight trips in the dead of winter to the drafty International Telex Office are a thing of the past. After a day of tough negotiations, you can relax by the swimming pool or work off tensions in the health club. More significantly, the influence of the foreign buyer reaches right down to the level of the village enterprise collecting duck feathers or subcontracting garments or radio components for a Hong Kong, a Taiwan, or even an American firm. Peasants owning trucks are still unusual. But they are no longer a rarity.

A COLLEGE senior described the difference between his generation and the Cultural Revolution generation I met 10 years ago. The students of that earlier generation, he said, were torn from their urban moorings by the upheaval of the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution and forced to work at menial jobs in the countryside, where they came face to face with the reality of age-old China - its poverty, its feudalism, its peasant wisdom and fierce instinct to survive.

``They had to work out for themselves the meaning of China, the meaning of their being Chinese.'' That meant divorcing themselves from all the propaganda they had been fed and listening to their own interior voice, to see where they belonged in the long history and struggle of the Chinese people.

``But our generation,'' the student said, ``grew up during the past 10 years of openness and reform. We are city folk. We don't know the countryside.'' His generation was more interested in defining themselves as human beings in a world much bigger than China.

``I can discuss the songs of Pink Floyd with my classmates, but if I ask my professor what he thinks of them, he won't have any idea what I'm talking about. I have never been in America, but I have more in common with young people over there than with my own professors.'' That did not mean the student did not respect his professors - their knowledge, their sufferings, their dedication. But there was no avoiding a generational gap which both he and his professors acknowledged.

So, if the bicycle and the fax represent some of the physical contradictions of China today, the student's remarks reveal the contradictions, not merely between the official line and what young people want, but between a China-centered view of the universe rooted in history and a reaching out to the world that comes from the vastly expanded mental horizons of the past 10 years - a process that would seem to be irreversible, whatever the twists and turns of official doctrine.

``On the surface,'' says an older intellectual who has lived through the anti-rightist campaign and the Great Leap Forward of the '50s, as well as the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, ``China is waiting. But underneath, it is changing all the time.''

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