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China hums with change

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We climbed to the 10th level of the ancient wooden Pagoda of Six Harmonies here, and the views all round were stupendous. To the west rose mist-smudged mountains in the valleys of which nestled the tea gardens that produce China's most sought-after green teas. To the east, across the broad Qiantang River, was the industrial and business center of Hangzhou, a provincial capital 140 miles south of Shanghai. Along just one short section of the horizon 20 huge cranes were at work, lifting concrete to add new ranks of apartment houses, shopping malls, and office complexes to the many the city already boasts.

China's massive economy is humming, and its continuing growth is making waves in the entire global market. In the process, relations among different groups in China; the role of its dominating Communist Party; and the self-image, views, and lifestyle of its 1.3 billion people are changing rapidly.

Indeed, on a recent weeklong stay in Hangzhou and Shanghai, I was struck by how successful China has been - in the three decades since the end of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution - in rebuilding both its economy and the educational infrastructure that is so important to its long-term prospects.

For many young people who live along the booming east coast, the privations of the Maoist era seem like ancient history. They dress just like young people in America. Many carry cellphones. Many have bicycles. But the public transport in the big cities is excellent. Beijing has three heavily used subway lines and is building five more - to be completed for the 2008 Olympics there.

In addition, for millions of higher- income citizens, owning a private car is now for the first time an option, and one they are taking up with zest. In Beijing, the city's vast system of eight-lane boulevards frequently comes near complete gridlock, even midmorning. (Several Chinese friends told me last year's SARS epidemic spurred many people who could afford it to buy cars to avoid riding buses and trains.)

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