The town of Xian, China was once a major world center. It was here that first empire of a unified China ruled from and it is the home of the famous terracotta army. This is also the main point of departure of the Silk Road that link China to the Western world. Times have been tough on this town though. As China moves away from its socialist past it is laying off many people from its state run factories.
JIM LEHRER: Now two looks inside the China President Clinton is visiting. The first comes from Fred De Sam Lazaro of KTCA-St. Paul-Minneapolis. He recently returned from Mr. Clinton’s first stop, the City of Xian.
President Clinton visits Xian.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For days workers prepared for President Clinton’s visit to Xian, a city of six million, some five hundred fifty miles southwest of Beijing in Shanxi Province. They used these boards to build a stairway to allow the President a rare eye-level glimpse at one of the century’s most spectacular archaeological discoveries. This army of Terra Cotta warriors dates back to 200 B.C.. It’s one of many monuments to a time when Xian was the center of the world, says China Historian Richard Bohr, a frequent visitor to the region.
RICHARD BOHR, University of Minnesota: Xian about a thousand years ago was the biggest city in the world. It was for more than a thousand years the capital of fourteen dynasties in China. It was the capital of the first emperor who unified all the feudal kingdoms into what became a unified China, a middle kingdom. It connected China to the Roman empire and the Mediterranean world through the Silk Road.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today tourists enter through the same wall into Xian that the Silk Road traders did centuries ago. The city took in the equivalent of some 200 million U.S. dollars in tourist revenues in 1996. Together with tourism, Bohr says Beijing’s push toward market reforms and home ownership has prompted a boom in construction activity, hitherto confined to China’s major Eastern cities. But behind the façade of growing tourism and the construction boom lies an economy still largely mired in the old socialist model. Dozens of large state-owned enterprises and factories have had to let go, by some estimates, as many as 40 percent of their workers. In the last four years, as state-owned factories have tried to compete in the market economy, joblessness has become a stark reality in Xian. Each day in what are called free labor markets hundreds of unemployed people, many from nearby rural areas, gather along the city sidewalks, hoping for day jobs.
MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) I come here to look for a job almost every day. I can’t find one.
The struggles of everyday life.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many complained to us off-camera of a daily struggle, in some cases, just to find food, about feeling betrayed by a system that had guaranteed lifelong employment and welfare benefits. However, newspaper editor Zhang Fuhan says China’s sweeping market reforms have opened a world of new opportunity. His own China Business newspaper, begun in the early 90’s, is privately owned and most of its workers are former employees of state-owned factories.
ZHANG FUHAN, Editor: (speaking through interpreter) So long as they are hard working and talented and like to do things, they will benefit. If you are lazy, don’t want to learn, don’t want to work, you will never benefit. This is good for the talented and industrious people, not for lazy and good for nothing people.
China’s class of entrepreneurs.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zhang and others are quick to point to stories from the emerging class of entrepreneurs. Hou Xiao Jun thought he’d spend the rest of his working life in this telephone equipment factory, where he was assigned to work after high school in 1975. But 19 years later he was laid off, along with half the factory’s workers.
HOU XIAO JUN, Car Wash Owner: (speaking through interpreter) At first, it was a big shock. I did not know about the future.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But after two years of looking, Hou saw opportunity as more and more Chinese began to purchase automobiles. He used his life savings and borrowed from relatives to open a car wash. Today he owns three of them, plans more, and has hired 50 people from the ranks of the unemployed.
HOU XIAO JUN: (speaking through interpreter) All of my employees make much more money than they originally got in the factory. Of course they work very hard, much harder than they did in the factory.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Not far from Hou’s car wash is another automotive entrepreneur. Tien Wanxia was laid off after 11 years of factory work, even though her old employer gave her its coveted Model Worker award. She managed to find work in the American Turtle Wax Company in Beijing, then decided to strike out on her own.
TIEN WANXIA, Turtle Wax Distributor: (speaking through interpreter) In U.S. every one and a half person owns a car. In China it’s every 100th person. But China is a developing market economy and the number of vehicles surely will increase.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Tien got a break from her employer, which awarded her a Turtle Wax distributorship. She returned to open it in Shanxi Province and later expanded to stock other auto parts.
TIEN WANXIA: (speaking through interpreter) I think Turtle Wax made me their agent because I work hard and to weather hard times. I want to become the biggest auto parts supplier in China.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, many of Xian’s unemployed haven’t had that combination of acumen and luck. Many try their hand at food service, helped by free street vendor licenses from the government.
MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) I didn’t have a job before and it was difficult.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But now you are earning money?
MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) Enough to support life.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Talking to reporters, especially foreign ones, may be gradually becoming less taboo in Xian, but the topic of joblessness is painful. Ask people on this street if they’re laid off, as we did, and the conversation stops abruptly. The key question is how long Xian’s laid off workers will have to endure the pain of unemployment. Few get any government assistance and must rely on family or savings to get by. However, Professor Bohr says despite their frustration, few see any alternatives to a market economy, having long lost faith in the old state-run economy.
RICHARD BOHR: What one hears from many of the laid-off workers is that I am willing to make a temporary, short-term sacrifice for the long-term gain of a healthier, more robust, private economy, which will be able to hire me and utilize my skills. The Chinese economy has been successful enough that it has been able to create enough prosperity to make enough people satisfied with the government.
The promise of tomorrow.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Bohr says while the future is uncertain for older workers in Xian’s new economy, it’s filled with promise for those who enter in a few years.