Chen's Deng Xiaoping's Legacy
Not Cherished by All
by Verna Yu
Agence France-Presse in Beijing

Deng Xiaoping might be fondly remembered by some as the innovative reformer who steered China towards affluence but many do not share the feeling of nostalgia surrounding commemorations to mark the late leader's 100th birthday.

They (the officials) are celebrating, but which one of us ordinary folks is celebrating? What is there to celebrate?" said a 63 year old hawker who sells chickens for one yuan in a Beijing pet market.

"I don't admire him, look at society now - thieves, robbers, they are everywhere," said the former wine factory worker from central Hubei province, who identified himself only as Zhang.

For decades Zhang was an employee of the state, which used to guarantee lifelong employment for its workers and was responsible for their welfare including housing and health care.

"In those days we could leave our front doors open at night and not have to worry. Now you have to watch your wallet every minute," he said.

Known for his pragmatic and laissez-faire approach to prosperity, Deng launched capitalist-style market reforms in 1978.

They helped push China through a metamorphosis from a drab Leninist state solely dependent on its staid state economy to a dynamic economic powerhouse.

But many ordinary people are now saying that life for them got worse, not better. "Bread used to cost four mao, now  they cost one yuan," said a welder at a construction site who gave his name as Li.

 Daily living prices have soared since the launch of Deng's market economy and although living standards have improved for many people, those at the bottom of the social ladder tend to feel most of the pinch.

"The distribution of wealth is so unequal and the gap between the rich and the poor is so wide," Li said. "If you have money, you can do anything, if you don't, you can do nothing."

"All the money goes into the pockets of the bosses," said another worker Wan Anping, 42, from eastern Anhui province. "Life is really tough."

Many migrant construction workers in Beijing toil for nearly 12 hours a day and apart from 100 yuan monthly living expenses, often get little more.

According to state media, the Gini Coefficient for China climbed from 0.18 in 1978 to 0.452 in 1995, and reached the warning level of 0.51 in 2002.

The index is an economic measurement of the rich-poor disparity used by the United Nations and the World bank and a reading between 0.3 and 0.4 is regarded as normal but 0.4 or above is considered serious.

Rampant corruption and arbitrary charges collected by government officials were other major complaints.

"These city management officials, police, bureaucrats, charging us for this and that, they are just eyeing the money in our pockets, "Zhang said, shaking his head.

Anybody wanting to set up a business in modern China has to pay a series of administration fees imposed by various government offices and bribes are customarily expected by officials.

In the countryside, village cadres often go from door to door collecting hefty taxes and arbitrary fees from peasants to boost the local administrations' incomes.

"You only have money if you have power," said taxi driver Zhang Guo, who used to be a farmer on the outskirts of Beijing.

"Look at these fancy buildings, if the developers want the lands the officials just give them away, it's so easy," he said, pointing at a row of garish pink new apartment blocks.

The taxi driver said he only manages to keep on average one-sixth of his earnings because of the hefty rental fees he has to pay the taxi company, which is one of the few that are monopolizing the market.

Zhang reminisced about a poorer but simpler lifestyle before economic reform.

"In those days everyone was the same, we were all poor but you just managed to get by," he said. The capitalist society, he added, had brought out the worst in people. "It's true that living standards are higher now than before, but people are malicious, they cheat each other, they are selfish, "Zhang said. "Look at the fake goods all over the place."

The widespread lack of supervision in the production and sale of low-quality, fake and harmful products that now flood China's market was most recently highlighted by a scandal in eastern China in which a substandard milk powder killed 13 babies and made at least 189 sick.

The non-state market often lacks effective and stringent supervision. Corruption and bribery, as in the milk powder case, often worsen the situation.

Zhang blamed the market economy heralded by Deng. "So many state-owned enterprises had to close down, people were made redundant and they are desperate," he said.

But shopkeeper Yan Qiuxiang, 67, said he preferred the current Chinese society, which is much more open and prosperous than the ideology-crazed Mao Zedong era.

Yan recounted numerous political campaigns during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, including the Cultural Revolution, which he said nobody would ever want to experience again.

Acknowledging that the country still has many social problems and inequalities, Yan said he cherished the economic and political stability enjoyed now by many.

"Our living standards have improved tremendously," he said. "If there wasn't the economic reform, we wouldn't have what we have now. This would not have been possible during Mao's era."