Deng's Winners and Losers

How the economic reforms changed the lives of four ordinary folk 




THE DENG REFORMS have dramatically raised the living standards of millions of Chinese. Nonetheless, their effects are notoriously uneven. Some people have thrived; others have shriveled. Here is a revealing look at four winners and losers in the new China - a millionaire software tycoon, a political dissident, a prosperous shopkeeper and a member of the unemployed.


At the height of Mao Zedong's Anti-Rightist Campaign in the late 1950s, Wang Xuan was part of a team building China's first primitive computer. It had a catchy communist name: Red Flag. That did not endear the machine to radical Maoists, however. They dubbed it a "bourgeois toy" and made sure Wang was left off other big science projects. Later, radicals stormed Peking University where Wang worked as a mathematics professor. Following a ritual humiliation, he retreated to his home, where he began work on Chinese-language software that under the less-restrictive Deng regime would make him a millionaire known as China's Bill Gates.

Everything changed for Wang the day in 1978 when Deng stood up at a science conference and invited intellectuals in from the cold. By the mid-1980s, the government was providing breaks for high-tech enterprises, and Wang's Founder group was well established. Today, it boasts 40 subsidiaries and supplies the programs for Chinese publishing ventures around the world. "These 20 years may be the brightest period in Chinese history since the Tang Dynasty," says Wang, 61. He certainly doesn't have much time for Chinese who wax nostalgic for the supposedly egalitarian period under Mao. Ask Wang to recall those days and he sees people lining up for scraps of fatty pork. "Now, no one wants to eat that kind of thing," he says.

Wang acknowledges that opening up has its costs, not least the brain drain of university graduates who head to the U.S. and elsewhere to take advantage of more lucrative salaries. Besides pushing for raises within mainland academia, Wang is trying to keep the best and brightest at home by offering graduates jobs with big money and perks. "I have proposed that we create 100 millionaires in the Founder group by 2010." As Deng said: To be rich is glorious.


In December, public security officers took prominent dissident Ren Wanding from his home, he says, and subjected him to hours of interrogation. His ordeal was part of the government's crackdown on the fledgling China Democracy Party, of which Ren, 55, was an organizer. Although three other party leaders earned double-digit jail terms, Ren remains free and relatively buoyant in the post-Deng era. The detentions are a warning, he says - "killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys."

This, after all, may be the first time in post-1949 China that anyone has managed to get branches of an opposition party going in several provinces. Ren describes the government's policy as "you can talk, but can't do." While Beijing won't allow the CDP to meet (or permit Ren to speak to Asiaweek in person), he says: "You can say this and that about the government or Party."

The political climate was not so free during much of the Deng era. Ren spent 11 years in prisons for speaking his mind. He went to jail after taking part in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79 and again after the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Following his arrest, his wife and daughter were threatened with eviction from their own home and were forced to move to a Beijing suburb, where Ren's daughter was not allowed to attend school because she lacked the required Beijing household registration. As a result, her academic career has been derailed, he says.

Ren has no illusions about the determination of the Communist Party to retain power and stifle dissent. "The party is tough and willing to use guns and let blood flow," he says. Still, he believes there is wiggle room to keep pushing political reform. "Everything," he says, "starts with small groups of people" - promising because Chinese have a greater say today than they have had since 1949.


If Wang Jianying needs a reminder of how things used to be in China, she need only listen to the tales of famine and economic collapse from North Korean embassy staff who frequent one of her Beijing produce shops. Wang, 28, was fortunate to have come of age at the height of the Deng reforms. To be sure, the old socialist guarantees of a job for life were gone, but new opportunities beckoned to savvy risk-takers. So, like many other young Chinese, she decided to xiahai, or jump into the sea of business. P> At 18, Wang began hanging around the local vegetable markets to pick up tips. She learned from bragging stall operators that the fastest way to get rich was gouging expatriate customers from the nearby diplomatic compounds. Somehow, this did not sit well with Wang; she opted instead for honesty and consumer choice. Two weeks later, armed with an old bicycle cart, 200 yuan of her own, plus 200 more borrowed from her parents, Wang opened a vegetable stall in Beijing's Sanlitun district. Ten years later, she has parlayed that investment into a string of grocery stores and acquired an English name - Jenny - from her appreciative foreign customers.

The changes that have flooded China in the past two decades are mirrored in the kinds of vegetables Wang carries, produce not even stocked on mainland shelves in the early '90s. One time, an Italian diplomat brought her fresh basil and asked if she could grow it. Today, you can buy the herb in Beijing. When someone else requested avocados, Wang didn't even know what they were. Now they grace her shelves. The fruits of her labor have provided Wang with her own apartment and a Hyundai car. "Under the iron rice bowl system, it didn't matter if you worked or not," she says. "If the government had scrapped this policy a long time ago, we wouldn't have all the problems we have today." Millions would agree.


It is not quite 6 a.m. as "Little Gao" wakes to freezing cold in an underpass near the Beijing Railway Station. Gao, 30, is one of millions of Chinese flung out of work as China makes its historic shift from socialism to a market economy. Along with scores of other unemployed people, Gao, an ethnic Korean, heads to the station toilet to rinse the grime from his face. A small scab runs along the side of his forehead. "I was unhappy because I couldn't find any work," he says smiling sheepishly. "I got drunk, fell down and cut my head."

He proceeds to an impromptu "labor market," but as usual there is no work. It is risky hanging around because the authorities consider the market illegal. Gao was detained once and, since he could not afford to pay the 200 yuan ($24) fine, his ID card was confiscated, making job-hunting harder still. He says there is also the risk of being cheated by unscrupulous employers. "They hire you and just before pay day, fire you, saying you aren't doing a good job." Once upon a time, Gao worked as a Japanese and Korean translator. After losing his job with a Korean company last year, he moved to Beijing and found a job on a construction site. He quit after a few weeks because he wasn't accustomed to the hard work and low pay. Despite his bleak existence, Gao remains determined - hoping Japanese and Korean factories will need people after Chinese New Year.

Gao spends most of his time these days on a street corner with his newfound friends, sharing the little food, cigarettes and money they can find. By 9 p.m., Gao has disappeared under a mound of blankets, as temperatures dip to -8 degrees Celsius. A friend motions to the pile of blankets and jokingly knocks back an imaginary bottle of whisky. Gao presumably has killed the pain of his hopelessness.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney