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Revolution of rising expectations

First of four articles based on the writer's conversations and experiences during his just-concluded 41/2-year assignment in the People's Republic of China.

In China nothing - well, almost nothing - goes to waste.

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Peking must be one of the cleanest cities in the world, because there is never any litter in the streets.

That was our first, and perhaps our strongest, impression when my wife and I arrived in the capital city of the People's Republic of China some 41/2 years ago.

The Great Wall thrilled us, and so did the Forbidden City, that enormous, soaring-roofed complex that housed the palaces of the Ming and Ching emperors.

But more intimate details struck us. I remember standing idly on one side of a street, looking across at the other side, where I noticed a young couple, walking along eating tangerines and carelessly tossing the peels away. A few paces behind them, a wizened old lady all in black, with a black bag slung across her shoulder, scurried along, stooping to pick up the peels they were discarding.

As we got to know China a bit better, we realized that orange peels were dried and put aside to make a hot midwinter drink. We never saw old newspapers blowing along the sidewalk - they were either bundled up neatly and sold, or used in the home to wrap things or to patch up walls and windows. (There is a shortage of glass in many cities).

The news media often carry stories about waste in factories - about some assembly lines mindlessly churning out thousands of widgets that can only be scrapped and about other assembly lines idle because of production bottlenecks.

But in their private lives, the citizens of China, whether peasants or city dwellers, are extremely frugal. As the economy improves, more color and variety are coming into people's lives. But for the most part, daily existence still goes on pretty close to the bone.

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This is especially true of intellectuals living on fixed salaries. Deng Xiaoping's reformist economic policies encourage people to work harder to earn more money. But despite two modest raises in wages since 1978, those engaged in intellectual work still tend to get the short end of the stick. If a factory produces more, its workers will get bigger bonuses. But a school teacher will not earn more by teaching more pupils. An office clerk will not get a bonus for shuffling more papers.

The government is trying to do something about this. But in China the poor, proud scholar remains a living tradition.

I came to know the family of a well-educated man who made his living as a translator of a European language. He had three daughters - no son - and insisted every one of them go to university, even if it meant supporting them for a year or two if they failed the tough entrance exams the first time around.

My friend - let us call him Mr. Chen - makes 70 yuan ($35) per month. His wife, a clerk in a bookstore, also makes 70 yuan per month.

With three unmarried daughters of working age, this family, if they were factory workers, would be quite well-off. But only the oldest daughter, who after graduation has been working in a forestry institute, contributes any money to the family exchequer. She makes 56 yuan, $28, per month and gives her mother

The other two daughters are both in college and a net drain on the family finances. The youngest daughter got into a college 1,000 miles from Peking. Education is basically free, but her father must send her $10 a month for her to get by. In addition, she gets a special subsidy of $4.50 a month from the state because of her family's straitened circumstances. It was a humilitating experience for her father to have to prove his need for this allowance. Even so, her mother had to borrow $35 from her bookstore to buy bedding and other needed equipment.

I mention these details because they are part of the fabric of life in China today. Nothing is more striking than the contrast between the bare-bones existence of most Chinese families and the wasteful abundance of life in Western countries and Japan.

The word frugality takes on a new dimension when applied to China.

How many layers of fat could we of the so-called advanced countries peel away , peel away, before we get to something that touches the very core of our existence? In China today, if you are hot, you perspire. If you are cold, you put on more cotton-padded clothing. If you want to cook, you must get the stove going by lighting up coal briquettes. (Many parts of Peking do not have city gas.)

To go on with my friend's story: Every New Year he never fails to pay his respects to his old university professor. He takes an hour and a half to bicycle to work every day. His wife, whose place of work is only 20 minutes from home, does the daily food shopping and cooking, but on Sundays it is my friend's turn. He buys something special - a chicken or a piece of fish - and does the cooking himself.

(In many Chinese families, the first person home from work, whether father, mother, daughter, or son, does the cooking for that day. Life has improved to the point where most people prefer lean meat to fat, but eggs are still a treat, and so is soft bean curd.)

My friend's oldest daughter has a boyfriend, who occasionally joins the family for Sunday dinner. The other children think this is not quite fair - she should be contributing $7.50 to $15 to the family exchequer if she wants to make a regular practice of this, they say.

But they also sympathize with the reason for her parsimony. Out of her $28 wages, she saves $10 each month, and her boyfriend, who was her classmate at the university and who makes exactly the same amount she does, does the same. In three years, the two will have saved $720 - barely enough to buy the furniture they want for their home once they are married.

What furniture? This is a classic example of the revolution of rising expectations. My friend and his wife, when they married, brought little more than a bedroll each to their one-room apartment.

The daughter and her fiance, however, want a Western-style inner-spring double bed (called Simmons, pronounced ''Si-mon-su''), not the traditional hardwood Chinese bed. Second, they want two armchairs, also with springs; third, a wardrobe; fourth, a chest of drawers; fifth, a table and four chairs; sixth, a sideboard with glass upper doors; seventh, a stainless-steel coat tree; eighth, a bicycle for each; ninth, a television set; tenth, a washing machine; and eleventh, a tape recorder.

Six years ago, Chinese newlyweds wanted ''the three things that roll'' - a bicycle, a sewing machine, and a wristwatch. Now they want 40 to 48 ''legs'' - a bed has four legs, so does a chair, and so on and so forth.

So life is changing, and during our stay in China my wife and I watched that process.

''Xiao-kang'' is a term Deng Xiaoping and other leaders use to describe the standard of living they hope China will have achieved in the year 2000, by which time they expect the country to have quadrupled agricultural and industrial output and to be enjoying a per capita income of $800 to $1,000.

Xiao-kang is a difficult word to translate. It means not luxury or abundance, but a state of being relatively well off.

I have a feeling that, even in the year 2000, China will be a pretty frugal society, at least in comparison with Western countries and Japan. It won't be a use-once-and-throw-away type of place.

But unquestionably, the Chen juniors will be leading a materially more abundant life than their parents. How about their mental horizons? Will these have expanded at a pace commensurate with China's material progress?

That is a tougher question, but I am inclined to answer yes.

The revolution of rising expectations seldom runs in prearranged grooves. China's leaders will have to show themselves farsighted enough to keep a step ahead of the process they have begun.

Next: The state of Chinese-Soviet relations

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