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Memories of painful past fuel China's boom

By KRIS HUNDLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


Day 1
China Inc.: More than 1-billion to serve

China Inc.: Super market

Memories of painful past fuel China's boom

Day 2
China Inc.: Global circuits

Solving the Chinese puzzle

Before I entered China, a mutual fund manager in Hong Kong made a comment that stuck with me during my two-week tour of the country.

"Chinese above the age of 14," he said, "remember what it's like to starve."

That memory haunts the boomtown that is China in the 21st century. Fueled by entrepreneurial oxygen, every office building is a skyscraper, every hotel is five-star and every road a superhighway. If reality hasn't quite caught up with promise -- if the fitness center and lagoon pool advertised on the hotel marquee is nothing more than a construction site behind a padlocked door -- just wait.

The first thing I saw in China that meshed with my naive preconceptions was a temple in the suburbs of Dongguan. Peaked tile roofs, dragon-headed gargoyles and gilded gods that could be honored with incense ($1.25 a box) all seemed perfect.

But the temple was a fake. It had been built five years ago by town fathers eager to satisfy foreigners' appetite for exotica. The site was real: A Buddhist shrine had been there for centuries before being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But the gaudy new temple, with its colorful flags advertising corporate sponsors, gift shop and big parking lot for tour buses, was an Epcot-like fabrication, sterile and empty except for a handful of Westerners.

Commercialism has edged out Communism in the big cities of China. Billboards for sleek sports cars, high-tech cell phones and residential developments with names like "Forest Manor" are plastered along the highway. A handful of patriotic posters, showing fresh-faced youths in Army garb pledging to put their country first, seem almost quaint.

But the power of the party becomes clear during a stroll down Shanghai's main shopping street on a busy Sunday night. There, above a pedestrian plaza, a jumbo TV screen beams an interview. It's an ex-Falun Gong member being questioned about the cult's techniques, our interpreter explains. The Chinese government certainly feels threatened by Falun Gong, doesn't it, I ask. "It should," he replies. "Falun Gong is very dangerous."

This same interpreter, however, speaks candidly of missteps in his country's past. Eugene Hu graduated with a university degree in English just as the Cultural Revolution gained force in the late 1960s. That was enough of a black mark to get him shipped to a military farm in rural southwest China for 18 months. "It was a national disaster," Hu said of the period from 1966 to 1976. "I could never have imagined the changes I see in Shanghai now."

Such changes seem more natural for Katherine Lee, our 26-year-old interpreter in Beijing. Single and employed by U.S. engine manufacturer Cummins Inc., Lee has a two-bedroom apartment that is bigger than the home she was raised in. She's got a color TV, DVD player, full-size refrigerator and is saving for a car. During a visit to the Great Wall, Lee perched on a step near the summit, flipped open her cell phone and called her parents, hundreds of miles away in Chongquing.

Our interpreter in Guangzhou had warned us about the tendency for people in southern China to eat anything that moves. But I still wasn't prepared for the restaurant in this Cantonese capital. Outside the entrance were stacks of cages filled with three kinds of venomous snakes, frogs, ducks, rabbit, quail and one very fat and sluggish porcupine. A nearby table held plates with cockroaches, termites, water bugs and crickets. I had the rice noodles.

Knock-offs are everywhere in China. A Spiderman DVD could be bought the day the movie was released in the States. Counterfeit Burberry shirts are sold in a flea market next to a genuine Burberry store. And Rolex watches -- "hatented" rather than patented -- sell for $1.25 on the street. Just outside Beijing, a theme park called "China's Wonderland" is springing from the dust. Standing in the middle: a castle that looks a lot like a certain princess' palace in Orlando.

Seen on a billboard in Shanghai: "Shanghai would enjoy you so much as to forget to go home."

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