From warlords to young entrepreneurs: change comes to rural China

Outside Guiyang's leading restaurant, several brands of Chinese and Japanese motorcycles await their owners. ``They're getihu [self-employed],'' a woman almost whispers, as if pointing out one of the region's many ethnic minority groups.

Inside, the young entrepreneurs sit around a table, receiving personal attention from the restaurant manager, who is also a private businessman.

``They come here to share information on markets and talk business,'' the woman says.

Private entrepreneurs in Guizhou Province, where Guiyang is located, are not as rich as some of their counterparts in other Chinese cities. But they dominate commercial activity in this remote provincial capital and live more conspicuously than most.

Private shops display fashionable clothing and beauty aids from Canton. Eateries cater to local tastes, serving such favorites as bean curd stuffed with peppers. Self-employed drivers offer transport services the state cannot.

Once a home to warlords and opium traders, Guizhou has made progress under communist rule. The province is not as remote as it was, but an old saying about the region still holds: ``No three miles of flat land, no three days without rain, and no three cents in the pocket.''

The mountainous terrain makes farming difficult and the name ``Guiyang'' means ``precious sun,'' hinting at the prevalence of overcast skies. Poverty is a problem, with personal income less than half the national average.

``Economic reforms have brought great changes to Guizhou,'' said Zhang Miao Gao, editor of the Guizhou Daily, the province's leading newspaper.

Mr. Zhang noted that the region has potential resources. Guizhou has enormous deposits of coal, mercury, bauxite, and other strategic minerals as well as sizeable water resources for hydroelectric power. With a nationwide shortage of electricity, the hydro-power potential is especially attractive, he said. There is also a growing number of skilled aerospace, computer, and transportation workers.

But the province is struggling with economic irrationalities which have hampered its development.

One problem is manpower. Guizhou is home to several hundred thousand ``guest workers'' from neighboring provinces. Local residents explain that Guizhou workers do not like to mine coal or work on construction projects, and outsiders who are willing to accept low wages for this work have settled here. ``Guizhou people would rather do technical work,'' Zhang explained.

But officials say that finding trained manpower for industry is still a serious problem. Meanwhile, the province is considering exporting its laborers to other regions to perform work which Guizhou people are especially skilled at - making liquor and cigarettes.

``The experience of having so many laborers in Guizhou from other provinces has made us realize we ourselves could benefit from exporting workers,'' said a Guizhou official.

Another irrationality is Guizhou's nationally famous liquor industry. At great expense, it relies on wheat and sorghum shipped from faraway northeast China.

But the province is unable to feed itself since arable land covers less than 16 percent of the region and the population has tripled in the last 50 years. The state imports rice from neighboring provinces and the central government allocates annually an additional 275,000 tons of grain, sold at a subsidized price. Since 1978, Peking also has subsidized the province each year with 500 million yuan ($135 million).

Guizhou is home to a number of defense industries, some of which produce weapons for export. But these industries have problems procuring supplies and raw materials in their remote, mountain hideaways. They are being pushed into producing consumer goods for profit, and some of these industries are considered questionable assets. They must either survive as inefficient industries subsidized by the state or be declared bankrupt, say Chinese observers.

One key opportunity for development awaiting Guizhou is tourism. The region is graced by the finger-like Karst mountains, formed from the floor of an ancient sea, as well as China's highest water fall, Huanguoshu, which some adventurers now trek to see. However, Guizhou has been open to foreign travelers only since 1985 and few practical steps have been taken to attract more visitors.

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