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New China Means Prosperity, Openness for Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between the windows of the weathered houses on Old Street, large painted characters are fading but still legible: “Chairman Mao is the redness in our hearts!”

But for the people who live behind those slogan-scarred walls, the era just past brought a new motto: Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping was the thickness of their wallets.

In Three-Seven Village, so dubbed because it is 37 li (about 12 miles) from Ningbo, the nearest large city in Zhejiang province, residents recently celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Ox--and the end of another year of increasing prosperity.

That higher standard of living, and the array of personal choices it brings, are likely to be the most enduring legacy of Deng, who died Wednesday in Beijing after presiding over two decades of unprecedented economic development in this nation.

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Vast areas of China remain terribly poor. The World Bank estimates that 100 million Chinese survive on less than $1 a day. But even the poorest regions have been touched--and in most cases raised a notch--by Deng’s economic reforms, which gave people more control over how they make their living.

While leaders in Beijing struggle to make people care as much about ideology as economics, in this eastern farming village on the verge of development it doesn’t matter whether there’s a poster of Chairman Mao Tse-tung on the wall or one of Madonna.

For residents such as the taxi driver who only goes by Liu and keeps a lucky medal of Mao to help him make money, or auto parts salesman Chun Tanwei, who hacked at a frozen dog leg with a hatchet on his new parquet floor for a special New Year’s dinner, the life bequeathed them by “paramount leader” Deng is all about adapting tradition to change.

Three-Seven Village is a cluster of old stone farmhouses with black slate tile roofs. These are traditional dwellings that are roomy and dark inside--and very, very cold during winter. When visitors come, the host immediately presents them with a cup of hot tea, as much to warm their hands as in a sign of welcome.

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The main room in every house is the dining room, and at the Lunar New Year, the traditional time for family reunions and feasting, 10 members of the Wu family huddled around a large table, swathed in jackets and scarves, to toast coming fortunes. “Xin Nian Kuai Le! Happy New Year!” they shouted, clinking glasses of homemade rice wine, before they settled down to discuss the year past.

Life is getting better, they agreed. Wu Haomen, the host, remembered when there was hardly any food for the New Year’s feast. But in the past few years, the extended family has not only had enough to eat but has begun to acquire modern conveniences, one by one, as the effects of economic reform finally trickled down from big coastal cities to small inland villages such as Three-Seven.

“No one can make a living anymore just growing things from the ground,” said Ling Xin, a writer, and so this town’s rice farmers and fishermen are becoming factory workers and entrepreneurs. A plastics factory, only quasi-collective, has provided new work and wealth to the area. Small businesses have sprung up on the edges of the marketplace--two-table restaurants, a photo studio, a medicine shop. They give new meaning to the term “market economy.”

Such changes have also become common across China.

During the Deng years, from 1978-1997, China’s annual economic growth rate averaged almost 10%. The effects of this expansion were felt first in the cities. But this nation’s 1 million villages also benefited greatly.

One paradoxical sign of the new wealth is that the per capita consumption of food staples actually have declined. In 1978, China’s per capita consumption of grain--mainly rice and wheat--was about 280 pounds a year. By 1995, the latest figures available, it had dropped to about 210 pounds.

In China’s lean years, such a decline meant crop failures and even famine. Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” in 1958-60 led to a famine in which an estimated 30 million Chinese died of starvation.

But in today’s economy, the decline means that most Chinese are moving up the food chain, consuming more meat and eggs to replace the calories once provided by grain. In 1978, the per capita consumption of pork was about 17 pounds. By 1995, it had more than doubled, to about 38 pounds. According to government statistics, living space in China’s villages also has jumped dramatically, from about 90 square feet per capita in 1978 to more than 225 square feet per capita today. In part, the additional space has been the result of China’s stringent family-planning program, the “one-child policy.”

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But the net result is that most Chinese villagers have considerably more elbow room.

As for the Wus in Three-Seven Village, they note that, in the past year, Cousin Chu got a telephone, Cousin Liu (not the taxi driver) bought a television, and Uncle built an addition on his old house, which now boasts a flush toilet. They have yet to get central heating, though, and above the holiday table, clouds of frozen breath mingled with the steam rising from the hot food and the curls of smoke from a foreign cigarette.

There were already 16 dishes crowding the round tabletop, and Mrs. Wu had to balance the 17th--a steaming fish soup--between the edges of two plates. She pointed out the delicacies: venison, salt-stuffed freshwater crab, river shrimp and this year’s most popular dish--cat. The chicken and fatty pork--staple foods--went nearly untouched. “We’ve eaten enough chicken this year,” said Ling, the writer.

The men were all gathered at the main table except for one cousin, who had to sit with the women as a penalty for gambling too much. The men began to talk politics. A yellowed picture of Mao still hangs on the wall; 25 years earlier, after-dinner conversation would have been based on quotations from his little red book.

This year, the men talked freely, joking and arguing, but more at the level of gossip than critical discussion of policies.

Although Deng was not considered here as being as heroic as Mao, they liked his economic reforms, they said--after all, they were making money. One doctor of traditional medicine reported with enthusiasm about the most recent Communist Party meeting. But the others paid much closer attention to his warnings about how excessive lovemaking can drain men of vital “life energy” than they did to his political analysis.

Indeed, everyday choices that used to be determined purely by politics--even the number of children one could have--are decided more and more by economics in the China that Deng did more than anyone to create.

Across the village, a woman who asks only to be called Mrs. Li poured sugar water in a glass for her pigtailed daughter, Miao-Miao. Even though as farmers Li and her husband would be allowed to have a second child to help with the heavy work--since their first child was a girl--they would rather have the extra money, she said. Soon they’ll move into a fancy new apartment on the edge of the market.

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Cousin Chu, who is also a family planning worker, confirmed that many farming families have forgone the chance to have a legal second child and said that there hasn’t been an illegal second birth in the village for 10 years.

“The reason is simple,” she said. “If you have an apple, one child gets one apple; two children only get half an apple.”

She said the economic development that Deng encouraged has made her job of persuading people to abide by family planning laws much easier and that she now spends more time on education.

“Now,” she said, “my job is to make people rich.”

The square of modern apartments lining the town’s new market shows that some people are, indeed, growing wealthy.

Chun sells auto parts for a Taiwanese joint-venture factory and travels throughout the region. While he helped prepare dinner by steaming crabs and shrimp, then chopping up a dog leg, his precocious 8-year-old daughter showed off their hot-water shower and television, then answered her father’s mobile telephone.

One of the conundrums of China’s rapid development since Deng embarked on a southbound 1992 train journey to call for development of a “socialist market economy” has been the growing gap between rich and poor.

Analysts such as economist Hu Angang at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warn that resentment of provinces that lag behind fast-growing coastal cities is the greatest threat to the government’s authority as the nation makes the transition to life after Deng.

Three-Seven Village is close enough to the coast to benefit from the region’s growth and small enough for residents to share the wealth. Just as Uncle Wu allows fellow villagers to come and try out his toilet, Cousin Chun shares his shower and mobile phone.

The Lunar New Year involves two weeks of feasting, and the main meal moved from house to house, with neighbors walking in and out of the always-open doors for a drink or a snack. The legacy of communal living, combined with the new rewards of capitalism, helped ward off feelings that the village was being left behind.

Still, said the herbal medicine doctor, a Wu relative who returned from Shanghai to his home village for the holidays, newer is not always better. He and his wife have been swept along by the tide of development, forcibly relocated from their beloved old house in the center of the city to make room for a planned high-rise. Their new apartment in a just-constructed building on Shanghai’s fringes is very modern, but there’s nothing else around it, they said.

The satellite town has no market, no hospital, no shops. The Wus are thinking of moving back to their village, where they have all these things plus plenty of friends and family.

“In the end,” the doctor said, “that’s what matters.”

Maggie Farley, The Times’ Hong Kong Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Three-Seven Village. Times staff writer Rone Tempest in Beijing contributed to this report.


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