Private enterprise in China fills the gaps

Tailor Zhang was working with quick, deft strokes, chalking out a pattern for a vest on a piece of woolen material his customer had brought him. The customer waited beside his open-air table, chatting with friends.

All around Mr. Zhang, other tailors, both men and women, were working with equal speed. Some were running foot-powered sewing machines. Others were measuring customers or cutting cloth.

Each tailor had a sewing machine and a cutting table. There were perhaps 50 of them altogether, in neat double rows on a street inside an enclosure that houses Xuan Miao Guan, or the temple of mystery, Suzhou's large, active Taoist temple.

The temple itself, a huge, soaring, double-roofed structure built in the 3rd century and destroyed and rebuilt many times since, has a main worship hall with an incense bowl and a kneeling cushion set before three fierce-looking gods.

But most of the activity goes on in the arcade surrounding the main hall. The arcade is filled with shops selling everything from cheap souvenirs to Suzhou's famous embroidered silk cloth. The temple is in the heart of downtown Suzhou, the busiest part of a city of 600,000.

Tailor Zhang and his 50 colleagues are an example of the private enterprise that Suzhou, like other cities throughout China, has been encouraging since Deng Xiaoping and his new economic policies triumphed in December 1978.

State and collective enterprises still remain by far the largest component of the commercial sector, to say nothing of industry. But private and cooperative enterprise is being encouraged to perform the myriad services that state enterprise does badly or not at all - tailoring, carpentering, plumbing, cobbling - repairs of all kinds.

Tailor Zhang, who is still in his early 30s, formerly worked in a state garment factory earning about 60 yuan (a little more than $30) a month, he told a journalist visitor.

But two years ago, he became convinced that the new economic policy of permitting private enterprise was here to stay. He quit his job - a bold step - and registered with the municipal authorities as an independent tailor.

He was assigned a space on the street outside the Taoist temple for which he pays 1 yuan (50 cents) per day. Taxes and other fees take another yuan per day. Everything else he makes he is allowed to keep.

Mr. Zhang estimated that he makes about three times as much as he did when he was in the garment factory. Some other Suzhou citizens thought he was being conservative - he was most likely making much more.

At the factory Mr. Zhang worked six days a week and rested on Sundays. He had medical and welfare benefits. As an independent worker, he can work as much or as little as he pleases, and gets no medical or other benefits.

Ever since he started out on his own, Mr. Zhang has worked from dawn to dusk seven days a week. On Sundays, his wife, who holds a job during the week, comes to help deal with the extra flow of customers.

If there is a little sprinkle, he puts up a simple tent. If it really pours, he must stop work or his material will be ruined. Mr. Zhang estimates that on the average he has 28 workable days per month.

Asked whether he missed the welfare benefits he had at his factory, Mr. Zhang emphatically shook his head. ''I make so much more money on my own,'' he said.

Asked whether he feared a change in the government's economic policy, again Mr. Zhang shook his head. ''This policy is here to stay. Otherwise, why would I have given up a perfectly good job at a state factory?''

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