Peonies and politics of Peking's spring

''Look,'' said the elderly woman, pulling back a thick cluster of peony leaves, ''this flower is still in perfect condition.''

And indeed it was - fold upon fold of the most delicate purply pink, wafting a scent so subtle it could hardly be discerned. ''These peonies were at their height on May Day,'' she went on, ''but they keep giving me pleasure day after day.''

Peonies are China's national flower, and in Peking the place to see them is Zhongshan Park alongside the Forbidden City.

It was lunch hour, and the park was filled with young and old, toddlers and retirees, office workers, soldiers, and even off-duty policemen chatting with their girlfriends on the balustrades of sloping-roofed pavilions.

The air was crisp and clear again after two days of swirling dust storms. A woman in a black tunic perched on a stool beside a particularly spectacular group of peonies, sketching each petal with rapt concentration while her husband and a group of children watched in respectful silence.

A young man walked along in the dappled sunlight, balancing a pair of bamboo whistles on a string. Children ran after their parents, licking ice lollies.

Perfect spring days are so rare in Peking that everyone in sight seemed to be treasuring each moment, storing it in his memory bank against the searing heat of summer, the freezing blasts of winter.

China's leaders, however, have little time to enjoy the serenity of Zhongshan Park, even though Zhongnanhai, where they work, is only a couple of blocks away, and the Great Hall of the People, where they attend official functions, is just outside the park across Changan Boulevard.

At home, the work of streamlining the government, merging or abolishing ministries, retiring the elderly and incompetent, and promoting loyal supporters of the economic modernization policy, is in full swing.

New China News Agency reported May 4 that eleven of China's thirteen vice-premiers have been removed, nine of whom have been moved to other positions.

In the international field, a whole procession of distinguished visitors from Iceland and Somalia, Luxembourg and Liberia, Guinea-Bissau and the Solomon Islands, has been solemnly welcomed at Tian An Men Square, banqueted in the Great Hall of the People, and pledged the undying friendship of the Chinese people.

Some visitors get the full treatment--tetes-a-tete with China's de facto leader, Deng Xiaoping, with party chairman Hu Yaobang, and with Premier Zhao Ziyang. The President of Algeria was recently so honored. Others are greeted only by Premier Zhao, or by one of the vice-premiers.

How many of the top leaders will American Vice-President George Bush get to see? Most probably Mr. Deng, perhaps also Mr. Zhao.

A young friend of mine, a senior in a provincial university, was recently told by his girlfriend, also a senior, but at a university in Peking, that she no longer wished to marry him. The two have known each other since childhood.

''When you graduate this summer,'' the girl told him, ''you are hardly likely to be assigned a job in Peking. As for me, I don't know where I will be assigned either, but there is almost no chance we will be given jobs in the same city.''

This girl's parents had to live apart for 21 years, because her father was an engineer, her mother a biologist. Both had roots in Peking, but neither was given appropriate work in the capital. Her father was assigned to an institute in a mid-Yangtze valley city, her mother to a university south of Peking.

''I don't want to have that kind of a marriage,'' the girl told her fiance when she broke their longstanding engagement. Yet this is precisely the kind of marriage that many Chinese workers, particularly professional people, must lead.

People cannot freely choose their jobs. They must accept jobs assigned to them by the state. Changing jobs requires such a daunting process of red tape that many people simply do not bother.

The authorities are aware of the problem and its consequences for morale, especially for the trained professionals they would like to see enthusiastically serving the cause of modernization.

A recent article in the magazine Banyuetan (Fortnightly Talks) said that during the past two years the State Personnel Bureau has reunited 320,000 husband-and-wife teams who had been working in separate cities.

Of these, 59,000 were engineers, lecturers, research assistants, medical doctors, agronomists, and other technical personnel.

Husbands and wives forced to live in separate places are called ''cowherds and weaving maidens'' from the legend of the cowherd who can visit his lover, a weaving maiden, only once a year.

The work of reunification proceeds slowly, hamstrung by bureacratism but also by the need to keep down the population of great cities such as Peking, Shanghai , and Tianjin. Even in smaller cities, dealing with jobs other than those requiring professional skills, delays are long.

''Have you been reunited with your wife?'' I asked a taxi driver in Datong whom I first met more than two years ago. He had then been married a month and was hoping to get his wife transferred from her job as a clerk in a commune store half a day's journey away. The driver's face clouded momentarily.

''Not yet,'' he said. But then, more brightly, ''I'm hoping we can do it next year. And if not, the year after.''

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