China 'capitalism' -- why a pen repairman is smiling

Smiles have returned to the faces of private shopkeepers and other individuals engaged in their own businesses in Peking. "I used to feel as if I were barely being tolerated," said Li Tianlu, who owns and runs a pen repair shop at No. 59 Longfusi, a busy lane that goes past the Dongsi market here.

"But since the downfall of "the gang of four' and the proclamation of "the four modernizations,' I am beginning to think that this time the government means what it says and that we individual shopkeepers have a role to play."

("The four modernizations" is shorthand for the current Chinese leadership's goals -- to transform agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense so that China can join the ranks of the developed nations by the end of the century. "The gang of four" headed by Mao Tse-tung's widow Jiang Qing, ruled China during the 10-year turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution. The four were overthrown in 1976.)

Mr. Li's words express a growing sentiment in China today.

As Mr. Li spoke to a journalist visitor in one corner of his sunny, neat shop , his wife was at the counter taking care of a stream of customers -- students, a mother with child, a middle-aged Army officer in khaki. some wanted penpoints changed, others to have them sharpened. Mrs. Li, in an attractive blue-and-white jacket of traditional pattern, attended to each customer's need quickly, efficiently, with minimum of fuss.

Mr. Li started his shop in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People's Republic of China. He was still in his teens, and he was helped to obtain premises by his older brother, who had been a soldier with the famed Communist Eighth Route Army.

"I was frail," he said, "and didn't have the strength to be an ordinary factory worker. I knew that the new China emphasized literacy and education. More and more people are going to be using pens, I reasoned. I like to work with my hands, and I taught myself how to repair pens and lighters. I didn't learn from anyone in particular -- it was all a process of trial and error for me. At first I was slow and made mistakes. "Gradually I got better. My father , who'd been a traditional Chinese herbal doctor in the country, came to Peking to help me run the shop."

Mr. Li showed me his work table behind the counter with its array of tools. As I watched, he performed a couple of delicate welding operations, saying proudly that while at first he could handle China- made pens, now he can repair foreign brands as well.

Mr. and Mrs. Li live in a room behind their shop, which is the same size as the shop itself -- about 12 feet by 9. They have built a small 3-by-9 balcony for their 13- year-old son above one side of the shop, accessible by stepladder from the back room.

Like some other Chinese families I have visited, one has the impression that the Lis, although living at a level most westeners would consider extremely austere, have the basic necessities of life and a bit more -- a roof over their heads, a shop producing sufficient income for a family of three, a radio.

The Lis earn about 200 yuan ($133) a month, a good income in a country where the average industrial wage is about $40 a month. Mr. Li gave up his shop in 1956 at the time of a movement to group private shopkeepers together in cooperative state- private enterprises. He went back to individual shopkeeping in 1961, as soon as a new law made it possible for him to do so.

The shop was closed down for 20 days at the start of the Cultural Revolution. but his equipment was not harmed and he was able to open up again and to continue in business throughout the tumultuous period.

Today the Lis' shop holds its own in competition with larger state-owned stores. "We have been around a long time now," says Mr. Li, "so we are quicker, more efficient, and provide kinder service to our customers. That's how we manage to stay in business."

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