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World & Nation

From the Archives: In Beijing, Neo-Capitalism Still in Vogue

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Yang Guoliang’s business card identifies him as the “adviser” at the AAA Bar in Beijing. It’s one of half a dozen cozy saloons permitted to hang out red-neon shingles several months ago after the city’s Communist Party leaders decided it would not violate the teachings of Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung for single men to drink and chat with the young women employees of the establishment.

“You see for yourself what is Beijing today,” Yang said one recent evening, as he scanned the leather booths where Beijing’s elite sipped imported beer and talked with the hostesses.

‘This Is the Future’

“Never mind what happened at Tian An Men Square. That is history. This is the future. This bar is living proof that our party leaders are still visionary, still committed to economic reform and liberalization in China, and that China is still very much on the path of change.”

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It is. And nowhere can that new path be seen better than in Beijing, where the face of China’s citadel of communism is changing so fast that it’s hard to say just what Mao and Marx would think.

Last month’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators and the government’s harsh, ongoing political purge notwithstanding, China’s sprawling and overcrowded capital of 10 million increasingly ambitious residents today offers a kaleidoscope of what can only be described as neo-capitalism.

Privately owned restaurants, boutiques, flower shops and street-vendor stalls are springing up every day, and flourishing. The city’s skyline, long dominated by institutional gray, prison-box apartment blocks typical of a Third World Communist capital, is now dotted with ultramodern, glass-and-chrome skyscrapers in the final phases of construction. And there are new, fully computerized five-star hotels where guests can dine on fine European cuisine, rent limousines by the hour and dance to the latest Western rock music in high-tech discotheques, where it’s much easier to find portraits of Madonna than Mao.

On Beijing’s outskirts, there’s even a showroom where visitors not only can examine the latest in Chinese military hardware but, for a price, are welcome to fire off a few rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle, a state-of-the-art anti-aircraft gun or even China’s most lethal rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The sales brochure of the China North International Shooting Range stresses that the operation “was set up in accordance with China’s current policy of ‘Enliven the domestic economy and open to the outside world,’ ” and U.S. dollars are welcome.

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Perhaps the best explanation for all of this, and its apparent contradiction with the outside world’s long-held impression of Mao’s China, can be found every Sunday in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park, on a small hillock under a stand of northern pines in a section of the park known as English Corner.

Practice Their English

Every Sunday for the past four years, ambitious Chinese students, technocrats and frustrated bureaucrats have gathered there from dawn until dusk to practice their English language skills.

“I think it’s a universal of human nature,” one graduate student told an American visitor at the English Corner last Sunday. “We’re just trying to better our lives. If we can speak English well, we can get a better job, maybe even go outside the country to work or to study or maybe just to see what the outside world looks like.”

A businessman who was listening explained that such sentiment is a direct byproduct of the past eight years of economic liberalization. “It’s true, the old party leaders who used the army to crush last month’s protests are now punishing many of the party moderates who created this liberalization policy,” said the businessman, who quietly added that he, too, participated in the protests.

“But it is only the people who are being purged. Not the policy. For a while, it will be difficult, because so many of our intellectuals are being kicked out, and there are not so many to take their place. But we believe Chairman Deng Xiaoping (China’s paramount leader) is telling the truth when he says the economic openness will continue.”

Most of the Beijing residents at English Corner agreed that the demand for political reforms that sparked the pro-democracy demonstrations was a natural outgrowth of the economic reforms.

“When people start making their own money, they want a direct say in the political decisions that will affect what happens to that money,” the businessman said. But the English speakers at Purple Bamboo Park last Sunday agreed that new economic openness has spawned another cultural phenomenon that is likely to have even further-reaching ramifications in Chinese society--ambition, competition and upward mobility.

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Although the Chinese have yet to coin a term like “young upwardly mobile Communists,” or, as one foreigner based here called them, Yuckies, they already exist in Beijing, and the city’s influential newspapers already have begun to take note.

The English-language newspaper China Daily published a story Saturday headlined, “The Woes of Beijing Car Owners.” Never mind that there are only 4,289 privately owned cars in the city. Five years ago, there were 118.

The story focused on Dai Hongxiang, a prominent violin maker who, after winning an international prize for his instrument, was rewarded by the Beijing Municipal Government and Communist Party committee with a rare permit to buy his own automobile.

“It is much more convenient and comfortable to go to work in my own car and not have to squeeze into crowded buses,” Dai was quoted as saying. But, he quickly added, there’s a catch to his new-found convenience.

“It is too hard to find replacement parts when the car needs to be repaired, and I have no place to park it,” he said, noting that there are still virtually no parking spaces or lots in a city that is struggling to keep pace with its residents’ economic advances.

Car Doesn’t Fit In

“Maybe I bought the car too soon,” Dai concluded. “It does not fit the present state situation.”

Indeed, most of Beijing’s people still get around on bicycles--millions of bicycles that snarl and bump and occasionally crash into each other during dizzying daily rush hours in which the bikes must compete for space with hundreds of buses, trucks and motorcycles that turn Beijing’s air a grayish blue each day. Air pollution is one of the nightmares Beijing has acquired with its era of economic growth.

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Inflation is another major hazard that haunts the capital. After nearly a decade of soaring economic expansion, the inflation rate is pushing 30% a year, and residents can be overheard as they pedal home each evening griping more about the rising prices than debating last month’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, which left hundreds--some say thousands--dead. Most of the capital is still under the watchful gaze of stone-faced, AK-47-toting soldiers, for martial law is still in effect.

In spite of inflation, the upwardly mobile young Chinese who gathered at English Corner on Sunday agreed that almost everyone’s income continues to increase in real terms.

Disparity of Incomes

“Everyone is making more than they did 10 years ago,” the businessman said. “The real problem is, some people’s income is going up much, much faster than others. And in most of those cases, there is corruption or, how do you say it, nepotism, involved.

“Someone has a high party cadre as a relative, so he gets a permit to open a shop before another man who maybe deserves it more. Or maybe you are a top party leader and you use your influence to make some real estate deal that gets you millions of dollars in profit, which you deposit in a Swiss bank.

“Even more than the need for democratic reforms in China, I think it was this corruption that brought people into the streets in protest last month.”

Such sentiment has not gone unnoticed by the Communist Party leadership, which is making its drive against internal corruption a high-profile affair. Every morning in the newspapers and each evening on state-run television, the people are told of another half a dozen party members who have been reprimanded, arrested, removed from the party or, in one case, even sentenced to death for taking bribes, peddling influence or stealing “the people’s funds.”

Anti-Corruption Assessment

Asked whether he believes the party’s anti-corruption drive is a sincere one, the businessman at English Corner laughed nervously.

“They are only going after the small fish,” he said quietly. “And everyone knows this. The big fish always seem to have bigger fish to protect them.

“You know, Mao Tse-tung spoke of this river and these fish to explain his Communist revolution. The river was society and the fish were the cadre--all of the cadre--who used the river as their cover to overcome imperialism and the oppression of the rich and powerful. But the river, it seems, is a different one today than it was in Chairman Mao’s day.”

The visitor then asked the businessman what Mao would think of the capital of Communist China today, where his tomb and his portrait still dominate the square that was the focus of last month’s protest and repression.

The businessman smiled, paused and then said, “I’m not sure Chairman Mao would even know where he was in Beijing today, let alone approve of it.”


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