Fiercely Independent Boatmen Defy Official Credo of Shared Wealth

Merchants in sampans give stiff competition to state-owned shippers

`FRESH haoziganr! Fresh and flavorful!'' bellows He Hanchun over the constant moan and blare of ship horns sounding across this Yangtze River port. Every spring Mr. He makes his pitch from the deck of a battered sampan, packed up to his waist in clumps of the wild plant called haoziganr, or crown daisy chrysanthemum.

Customers line up on the riverbank, waiting their turn to walk a long, warped plank to the heaps of greens spilling out of Mr. He's black boat.

Between sales, Mr. He shouts again, swings a long bamboo pole with a ladle overboard, and pours brown river water over his leafy cargo.

Since the state began to condone a measure of private enterprise in the mid-1980s, river merchants like Mr. He have revived the ancient cries of entrepreneurial traders on China's longest, busiest, and most populated river. The gumption of Mr. He and other river getihu, or private businessmen, has helped spread unprecedented prosperity along the Yangtze and helped integrate the economy of several regions more than at any time in more than 30 years, Chinese officials say.

Privately run boats carried 14 percent of China's ship cargo in 1989, a dramatic jump from the beginning of the decade, according to the Ministry of Communications.

``The getihu have played a very important role in Yangtze River shipping; they are a vital force in river development,'' says Han Tao, an economist for Hubei Province.

Private boatmen like Mr. He have helped open up backward areas on the 1,800-mile river still inaccessible by rail or road. They carry virtually everything made in China's most productive river basin: timber, steel, textiles, cotton, sand, gravel, wheat, vegetables, rice, corn, coal, jute, potatoes, and fertilizer.

Three times each spring, Mr. He hires some 40 peasants to reap the wild vegetable on the hills outside of Yueyang in Hunan Province and load up his boat. He then sails his brimming, 25-foot sampan 100 miles downstream and lands it on the tan, silty riverbank in the heart of Wuhan.

``My haoziganr is so popular, sometimes I can make thousands of yuan in a single trip!'' he shouts so all his customers can hear.

But in a whisper, he says with a smile, ``It's late in the season, though, and this load isn't very sweet, so I may lose a lot of money this time.''

Captains of larger getihu vessels have competed with state-owned shipping companies in the past six years, giving the crews in the moribund firms a run for their rice bowls, Mr. Han says.

Outmanned, underfunded, and lacking the guarantees that come with government tutelage, the getihu are at a disadvantage. But in their make-or-break enterprise, they ship goods at a discount and strive for a high level of efficiency. They also are more flexible, taking on smaller loads than their state-run rivals.

Despite the getihu's contributions to the Yangtze economy, the government in recent years has looked on them with ambivalence, many boatmen say. Since initiating a policy of retrenchment in 1988, the government has tried to discourage Chinese from plying the Yangtze with cargo in search of a fortune. Officials have withheld new licenses for private boatmen.

Yangtze merchants in the past have hit more hazardous communist cross-currents.

In 1954, Beijing expropriated the vessels, factories, mines, and other holdings of Yangtze shipping conglomerates, disbanding companies that had started laying the lines of a unified economy from Shanghai to Chongqing in central China.

Today, the comparative riches, headstrong outlook, and footloose lives of the river getihu defy the official credo of shared wealth and political subservience, many boatmen say.

In Wuhan the boatmen come and go from a floating ghetto where the Han River flows into the Yangtze. One boat captain pulled a visitor aside and asked him if he wanted contraband smuggled to Hong Kong.

Still, the getihu must follow tight controls and pay high taxes. For every trip, Mr. He must pay more than $10 to the port bureau, the river affairs commission, the industrial and commercial bureau, and the river police.

Ren Mengguo and his eight shipmates must pay the Yangzte River Navigation Management Station $200 every time they sail between Chongqing and Shanghai on their 70-foot barge. Still, each of them earns more than $5,600 a year, an astronomical income in China.

The river rovers seem to find less satisfaction from the wads of bills in their pockets than from the knowledge that when they choose, they can quickly shove off and leave their troubles on the riverbank.

``I used to be in the Navy and I learned to love life on the water,'' says Mr. He, standing with arms akimbo on the bow of his sampan.

``On the river, I'm a free man!'' he shouts, turning away from shore and disappearing astern to sit beneath a covering of bamboo and straw matting.

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