Her life mirrors China's changes
As Wang Aihua waves her "Little Red Book of Quotations," by Mao Zedong, on the streets of Beijing, the act sometimes triggers her memories of a bygone era - the age of Mao's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Ms. Wang, like most of her compatriots, read nothing but Mao's Marxist maxims at the time because virtually every other book had been burned.
Today, she sells the book as a relic of a fading past, even as Mao's audience seems to dwindle by the moment.
While the paperback was printed in the tens of millions a generation ago, "Now supply seems to have outstripped demand," Wang says flatly.
The bookseller, whose name translates as "Loves China Wang," was born in 1949, the same year as the People's Republic of China. Her life mirrors China's evolution since the revolution.
Wang has joined parades to worship Mao, been banished to the countryside, was elevated to a prestigious post in a state-run factory, and then laid off with a subsistence-level pension as China has been navigating the currents of a half-reformed economy. Wang's latest zigzag in life consists of hawking the father of Chinese communism in an increasingly capitalist society. The onetime Mao zealot is now on the lowest rung on China's ladder of private enterprise and like many others, she is being hit by a sense of vertigo.
Unlike many Chinese, however, she seems to pine for the past - a time of impoverished egalitarianism and heady mass movements aimed at, in Mao's words, "turning the heavens and earth upside down." In recollections perhaps tinged more by nostalgia than realism, Wang says, "At least there was a sort of stability during Chairman Mao's reign. Today things are changing so quickly, and it seems society is becoming very chaotic."
Stable is a term few other Chinese would use to describe Mao's Cultural Revolution. Wang enlisted as a Red Guard at its beginning in 1966. "During our marches to Tiananmen Square, it seemed nothing could stop us," Wang says, becoming animated with the memory.
Mao ordered his young storm troopers to pave the way for a communist culture by destroying all remnants of capitalism and tradition in Chinese society. The Red Guards "made revolution" by beating Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks, Western-influenced artists, and Mao's other political enemies. The guards inspired such fear that streets would clear in their wake. Yet Wang recalls only the waving of the "Little Red Book" and the happy singing of odes to Mao like "The East Is Red" during street parades to Tiananmen.
These days, Wang paces the streets after dusk each day to scout out the best location to display her wares. As she lays out her square-meter section of white cotton cloth on the sidewalk, she quickly arranges her Mao books and badges on the sidewalk, somewhat ironically alongside carved wooden Buddhas. Asked whether the leader of the proletarian revolution might be angered by her profit motive, Wang laughs. "Of course not. What could please Mao more than my propagating his books for our foreign visitors?"
The Little Red Books Wang sells are remnants of the last decade of Mao's life, when he created a personality cult that was probably more powerful than any of his imperial predecessors'.
Mao's books, portraits, and statues were cloned across the country until his passing in 1976, when more pragmatic rulers began dismantling institutionalized worship of the socialist emperor and his state-planned economy.
Wang says she was forced to take to street sales last year, when the state-run Beijing Oxygen Factory gave her a pink slip, along with 200 yuan (about $25) per month in early retirement benefits.
"It's impossible to live on so little money," says Wang. School fees alone for her teenage son take more than half the pension. Wang says she misses Mao's era, when education, health care, and housing were free.
China's 20-year-old market reforms have seen the cost of living skyrocket, but ongoing government control over large sectors of the economy provide immense opportunities for graft.
"Corruption was virtually nonexistent during Mao's day," says Wang. "Yet now you can see it almost everywhere."
Communist Party officials often enjoy tremendous power and very little pay, and many are tempted to barter their decision-making authority for bribes, say some Chinese economists.
"One sector of the party is becoming China's new economic aristocracy through the reforms, just as layoffs at state factories are creating a new class of urban poor," says a young lecturer at a Beijing university.
Many of Beijing's street peddlers, like Wang, have been cast off from what were once lifelong jobs and the safety net of state enterprises. Some say they feel victimized because a state-planned system that they contributed part of their lives to now seems to be vanishing. These peddlers may be among the more fortunate survivors of the reforms.
While the government estimates unemployment at just above 3 percent, "There is a huge but hidden number of workers who are technically employed but no longer get paid by their factories," says Hu Angang, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing. "When added together with tens of millions of peasants in search of work in the cities and no national unemployment system, this is creating a massive problem for the government," he adds.
Yet a senior official in Beijing scoffs at the notion that the Party's capitalist reforms may be giving birth to a "surplus army of workers" that Marx predicted would spearhead the proletarian revolution. "No one wants to start another revolution here," he says. "The Chinese people are tired of political upheavals."
As much as she reminisces about the glory days of Mao's era, Wang appears to agree. And if her sales of the "Little Red Book" are an accurate reflection of public opinion, there is little appetite for a new class rebellion. "These days, only foreigners buy the chairman's book," says Wang. "Most Chinese have had enough of Mao."