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By the China Sea, migrants share a zest for freedom

Wang Zhong journeyed far to the south coast of tropical Hainan Island to escape the cold desert of China's remote western region of Xinjiang and see the ocean for the first time. But beyond discovering the silver-talcum sand and a green-and-golden sea, he says that on the warm beach at Yalong Bay he has for the first time found freedom.

Mr. Wang traveled to the South China Sea island for a holiday, not an epiphany. But he said he was swept away in the excitement of 30,000 other mainland Chinese who have come to stake a claim on the opportunities promised by a government plan to grant Hainan more liberties than any other region in China.

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``I was infected by their spirit of enthusiasm and independence,'' he said, sitting on a stool in the sand beneath a white-linen canopy supported by four bamboo poles that he calls ``teahouse.'' With two friends, he plans to make a living on the beach offering tea and other drinks until he finds permanent work.

Like many migrants, Wang decided to quit his state-assigned job on the mainland because he felt the skills he learned during years of graduate study were wasted. Appointed as a technician at an oil refinery in Xinjiang, he said he was unable to practice the profession for which he was trained - medicine. On Hainan, he expects to land a job at a nearby hospital.

``People on the mainland seem to be doing well - the government gives them a job, food, housing and security - but it is just superficial,'' Wang said, as fishermen with straw hats and leather sandals hauled in a net and emptied a mound of blue, slapping fish onto the beach.

``The life on Hainan is more colorful and much more significant because the people who have come here for adventure face two consequences: success or failure,'' he said.

At night the hosts of the teahouse cook dinner over a fire and sleep on a dune in the lee of beach grass, surrounded by cactus crowned with yellow flowers.

Wang and his friends, a biologist and a chemist, acknowledged that their zest for freedom alone will not ensure success. In their first day running teahouse, they earned just a dime.

Chinese emperors called Hainan the ``end of the earth'' and banished to the island numerous rebels, officials, and poets who caused them displeasure. Today, to Wang and some of China's other best and brightest under communist reformers, the farthest reaches of China's former imperial court is a boom or bust frontier.

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Most of the Hainan settlers, while waiting for better jobs, have taken on the menial work of peasants and laborers. In the streets of the northern city of Haikou a lawyer from Peking sells dumplings, a computer specialist from Shanghai sells newspapers, an engineer from Xinjiang sells his region's specialty of barbecued mutton, and an English teacher from Sichuan works as a porter.

There's a historical irony in some of China's new intelligentsia taking up the tasks associated with their lesser-schooled compatriots.

The government ordered millions of well-educated professionals of the prior generation to the countryside to work as peasants during the period of leftist fanaticism known as the Cultural Revolution.

Today, as the government deepens its pragmatic economic reforms, young graduates have rushed to Hainan to take up some of the same menial labor. But they do it by choice: for the government's promise of greater freedom.

Describing their adventures away from home, they mix the stream-of-consciousness exuberance of Jack Kerouac's On The Road with the horse sense of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley. They talk with a down-home fervor.

Although Cai Jianwei, an architect from Hangzhou, had failed to find work, he said ``the trip has been worthwhile because I've learned things that would have taken me years and years to learn in Hangzhou - I've learned how to survive.'' Each day he sells newspapers to try and earn the $1.10 for room and board in Haikou.

Zhou Houwen, an English teacher from Hunan Province, said, ``For the first time I've experienced the way of the free world. In this world you have to boast if you want a job, not just be continually submissive as on the mainland.''

Many islanders are jealous of jobs that may open after the National People's Congress declares Hainan a province next month. They are hostile toward the newcomers and refuse to speak in a Chinese dialect other than Hainanese, according to the migrants.

``This has been a very good opportunity to know the world, to get many experiences of life, and it should make me a better, more sympathetic scientist,'' said Wang, the teahouse owner.

As a cool evening breeze swept across the bay he said, ``Sometimes I worry about failure.''

Silhouetted in black against the rose glow of sunset, he said, ``but at least I'll have this time on the sea.''

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