New Trade Thrives Along China's Old Silk Road

Chinese start their own enterprises to add the spice of variety to life

BENEATH the towering West Gate, where 12 centuries ago merchants from Europe and Asia embarked on the old Silk Road, a new commerce is budding.

The Xian evening market may be less exotic today than when this city, then the Tang Dynasty's glittering capital named Chang'an, was the hub of communication lines and caravan routes linking China to the rest of the world. Instead of silks, spices, and jewels, today's wares include padded shoes, watermelons, booties, and long underwear.

Although the government still officially frowns on Chinese holding second jobs, most of the traders gathered in the shadow of the old West Gate, known as the Gate of Peace and Stability, work regular jobs by day and moonlight by night.

Take Li Zhuoqun, for instance. She and her husband, Cai Guangwen, work six days a week at the Xian Electrical Machinery Manufacturing Co. At night, though, she sits on the sidewalk bordering the old city wall and moat and knits booties, socks, dolls, and blankets for sale.

She earns about $4 each night, but money isn't really her motive, she says. ``We don't need the money. This just makes life more varied,'' she says, crafting a woolen sock by the light of a lantern as her husband sits nearby. ``I don't really feel tired. This is a sort of relaxation for me.''

Economic reforms have given workers in the bloated state sector the option of quitting their jobs to start businesses. In China, this is known as xia hai, or going into the sea.

But many people are uneasy about leaving their jobs, which provide cradle-to-grave benefits under the socialist system. Instead, they continue to appear at their workplaces while working another job or launching a small business.

The practice worries the government as it confronts the massive task of streamlining state enterprises and weaning millions of people from the country's costly social welfare system.

REGULARLY, Chinese newspapers debate the wisdom of tRolerating millions of moonlighters, including poorly paid teachers, scientists, and other professionals who become spare-time peddlers to earn an extra buck, tax-free.

But that doesn't stop the street traders in Xian and many other Chinese cities who want the best of both worlds.

Mrs. Li, who has a seven-year-old son, says she knows she can't knit on the streets forever. She wants to sell her items in hotels and other places visited by the droves of foreign tourists who come here every year.

If that catches on, she plans to quit her factory job and go private while her husband keeps his job in the public sector to retain the family's allocated housing and benefits.

``I know my knitwear will have a good market, but I can't continue like this, selling on the road. By that time I will plunge into the sea,'' she says.

``I plan to do market research at the places of interest to tourists. And if the market research says that this is a good idea, we will become a family of two systems.''

Down the street, Chen Yuying, a retired factory worker living with his wife on a $27 monthly pension, is annoyed about the growing competition in the evening peddlers' market. Sitting on the sidewalk amid the socks, plastic slippers, underwear, and belts he sells, he says his daily profit is usually about $1, but tonight it will be only 25 cents.

His son, Chen Ziqin sells computers by day and earns extra pocket money helping his father in the evening. Like many other young Chinese, the younger Mr. Chen, who graduated from junior college and speaks English, eventually hopes to start his own business. ``This is like a flea market,'' he says. ``I know a lot of people who work during the day and come out in the evening to sell.''

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