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A Room of Ones' Own Is a Distant Dream

In Shanghai, government policy results in acutely overcrowded, dilapidated housing

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ON most mornings, Zhou Shufang rises from her foldaway bed before 6 and creeps down the steep, creaking wooden staircase from her family's tiny, one-room abode to a communal kitchen. Tea kettles and pots of breakfast xi fan, or rice gruel, simmer on gas stoves, where Mrs. Zhou and members of six other families cook elbow-to-elbow for 28 mouths each day.

Zhou politely greets other residents who share what before the 1949 revolution was her father's opulent, three-story, brown- brick home in the old quarter of Shanghai.

``We try to cooperate,'' says Zhou, a dignified 70-year-old with neatly curled hair. With seven families manning one kitchen, two sinks, and a crude shower that runs from a cold outdoor tap, ``I guess we get along fairly well,'' she sighs.

For Zhou and the 12.8 million inhabitants of China's most populous city, a room of one's own is a distant dream.

Every day, Shanghai awakens to a cacophony of bicycle bells, snarled traffic, and bus attendants barking through megaphones as workers flood the city's meandering, tree-lined streets.

In back alleys cluttered with tables and stools, people eat, read, or gossip. Elderly women in loose-fitting pajamas scrub clothes on wooden washboards. Men in undershirts rolled up from the waist gamble at cards or mahjong.

Homes, sometimes called ``pigeon coops'' or ``honeycombs'' in Shanghai slang, offer little respite. Nearly a million people in the central city have ``living space'' of less than 6 ft. by 6 ft. each, according to official statistics. Of those, 130,000 have less than half that space - barely enough for a single bed.

Shanghai's housing shortage, one of the worst in China, is a direct result of the Communist Party's untenable policy of providing the country's 200 million city dwellers with rooming for a pittance, officials concede.

The cramped and decaying housing illustrates an enduring paradox of socialism: Welfare for all produces shared poverty, with comfortable homes the privilege of a corrupt few.

Eager to avert a crisis, Shanghai recently drafted major reforms that would scrap the system of state allocation and gradually ``commercialize'' housing - essentially by making people pay for it. [See accompanying story.]

But the city's low-paid factory workers, accustomed to state handouts, are likely to resist spending more.


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