"Fresh crabs! Fresh crabs!" the strapping blue-jacketed peasant called. "Fresh corn! Buy my fresh corn!" shouted the peasant in a gray jacket next to him, squatting behind his pile of corn. Next to him was a man with two sacks of roasted chestnuts, and next to him, another with two sacks of small pears -- "Peking white pears!" he was calling.
This is one of the free markets that have sprung up in various parts of the capital city -- this one up and down the dustry side of a main road not far from the Peking Zoo. In the state-run stores, vegetables and fruit look anemic, and the salesclerks couldn't care less whether they serve you or not.
Here at the free market, tomatoes and green peppers, corn and Chinese cabbage , are unwilted and the customer has a choice. This reporter was just about to buy some Peking white pears when a girl with a string bag said in a loud, indignant tone, "I'm returning your pears. I've eaten one and they definitely are not Peking white pears."
"Oh yes they are," the man replied, but in a softer voice. "Oh no they're not," the girl rejoined. "Peking white pears should be whiter and juicer and sweeter."
The man took back her pears without further comment and returned the 20 fen (about 13 cents) that she had paid.
At the crab stall, the vendor was measuring two catties (a little more than two pounds) of squirming crabs on his weighing stick. The crabs, in a string bag, dangled on a tray suspended from one end of the weighing stick.The man moved a weight on the stick toward the other end, to a point where the stick momentarily became perfectly level.
"Two catties exactly," said the vendor. "That will be three yuan 15 [about $ 2.10]."
"But you're not holding the stick level," the woman complained. "Come on, put another crab in." The man smiled and obliged, and brought the price down to three yuan exactly.
"Look at their eyes," said a visiting farmer from Japan who had spent the day going around free markets. "Those vendors have a different glint in their eyes. That glint says, 'I've got to earn as much money as possible, so that I can buy a radio, or a watch, or another bicycle for my family.'"
The vendors are all commune members, some coming not merely from the outskirts of Peking but from neighboring provinces. Under laws that have been in effect for about a year, commune members can sell the produce they grow on their private plots and keep the proceeds. I met a farmer who had come from neighboring Shandong Province with a supply of fresh ginger, much firmer and more alive-looking than the tired-out specimens one finds in state stores.
My friend from Japan, who headed a farmers' delegation to China, had also visited many rural communes. "It's tue that Chinese farmers are much poorer than we are," he said. "They have no refrigerators, no washing machines, very few television sets, and certainly no cars.
"But neither do most of them have that glint I was talking about -- except the ones who live near enough to towns to sell things on the free market.
"We in Japan got that glint after the war. Before that, we were all poor together. But when that glint came into our eyes, we worked like dogs to grow more crops, to buy more fertilizer, get better seeds and pesticides -- all so that we could fill our homes with washing machines, and refigerators, and television sets, and eventually get our own cars."
"Are we better off than we used to be? Of course.Are we happier? I'm not so sure. I think we had more of a community spirit in the days when we were all poor together.
"It would be nice if China could modernize without everyone having to feel as harassed as we do in Japan -- everyone looking sideways at his neighbor to see what new thing he may have bought -- a bigger car, or a better television set, or sending his son off to university, or whatever.
"But I'm not sure that's going to be possible. Just imagine: if 800 million Chinese peasants get that glint in their eyes, how this country is going to change!"