Chinese cook teaches bureaucrat meaning of equality

"If an ordinary citizen rides a bus without paying his fare, he will be punished; if a leading cadre wines and dines and doesn't pay the proper bill, why should not he be criticized?"

Why not, indeed? Chen Aiwu, a young cook who wrote the words quoted above, discovered over a two-year period how difficult it is to marry socialist theory to socialist practice and to have a law that applies equally to all citizens, however high their rank. In Chen Aiwu's case, the story has a happy ending. The cadre at fault, Commerce Minister Wang Lei, has made a public self-criticism and repaid his bills.

Mr. Chen, who at the age of 25 already enjoys the title of "model worker," has been commended for his perseverance in exposing a form of corruption that is widespread in Chinese society.

A number of high-ranking cadres, including a vice-minister of food and a deputy mayor of Peking, now have paid delinquent bills or asked restaurants whether they might have any bills in arrears.

It seems Minister Wang had the habit of eating expensive dishes like roast duck, sweet and sour live fish, and sea cucumbers with onions at the famous Fengzeyuan restaurant in Peking, where Chen Aiwu worked as a junior cook.

Being a veteran member of the Communist Party and bureaucrat in the commerce field, as well as a former deputy mayor of Peking, Minister Wang must have considered these meals one of the perquisites of his office, for he never paid the regular price. For instance, one night he paid only 14.50 yuan for a dinner for eight when he should have paid 86.40 yuan (about $10 instead of $57). MR. Chen's co-workers complained behind the minister's back, but did nothing.

Conscious of his responsibility as a "model worker," Mr. Chen said in a recent interview, he took the matter up with his superiors in the restaurant, then with a municipal bureau, beginning in the summer of 1978. For two years he was met with almost total indifference.

"You know it's going on, I know it's going on, but we can do nothing," said one higher-up.

This year, the Communist Party Central Committee published guidelines for the behavior of party members. Included is the following: "It is necessary firmly to overcome the abominable tendency existing among some leading caders to seek special treatment for themselves and their family members."

Mr. Chen screwed up his courage and wrote directly to the disciplinary commission of the Central Committee, despite the tearful remonstrances of his mother and girlfriend.

An investigation followed. As word spread among his coworkers, some accused Mr. Chen of being a careerist, others of not caring about the restaurant's probable fate. But the results of the investigation fully vindicated the young cook.

The minister made a full self-criticism. Mr. Chen's courage and persistence were publicized in all the leading newspapers, and on television.

The affair has also raised deeper questions about the obstacles that have to be removed if China is to become a fairer society. "Unless the system is changed, wrong practices cannot be checked," said the Youth Daily in its Oct. 18 issue. The youth newspaper's reporters interviewed young workers at another famous restaurant, the Fangshan, in Beihai Park.

The restaurant is building a dormitory for its workers. "Since the work was begun at the end of last year," the young workers said, "we've had to make the rounds of related organs [officials who can help or obstruct the construction] more than a hundred times, we have invited them to 'guest meals' [the same type of meal Minister Wang enjoyed], we have facilitated their buying good wines and cigarettes, and still the construction is very slow."

The whole system has to be changed, the workers say. They want laws to protect them in commercial dealings. They want all men to be equal before the law, and for the masses to be guaranteed the right to supervise party and state officials every level.

Before publishing the article, its authors checked it with one of the managers of the restaurant. "I'm afraid there will be side-effects if you publish this," she sighed. "The distance between reality and reform is still very great. The buildings of our dormitory will be even further delayed."

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