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Prosperity has brought a wave of petty crime to the cities, mostly muggings and pickpocketing. Even among the poor, however, there is the exhilarating sense that money can be made if only a little entrepreneurial gumption is shown. The latest craze in Chengdu, for example, is billiards. For about $40 anyone can buy the equipment to go into business. The tables are warped, the felt ripped and the balls chipped, but at 30 a game they offer cheap recreation and an easy chance to gamble. If no storefront is available, the tables are set up outside under streetlights. The mania is an apt symbol both of China's love for things Western and of the new freedom to make money in imaginative ways. One evening a young man watched as several players began a game on his table. Leaning on a cue stick and nodding at the scene, he observed wryly, "This is the Fifth Modernization."SHENZHEN
Imagine a city being built from scratch. Imagine a marshy coastal strip filled with paddy fields and fishing villages transformed into a megalopolis within a few short years. Shenzhen is just that place, a 126-sq.-mi. serpentine swath opposite Hong Kong that still has the raw look of a city halfway between blueprint and reality. Apartment high-rises border unpaved roads, while open trenches pose a hazard to the unwary. In the shadow of the International Trade Center, at 54 stories China's tallest building, are mounds of dirt coughed up by the excavation. Construction cranes scratch the sky, the air is full of dust, and the noise is worthy of a Grateful Dead concert.
Shenzhen has been China's boomtown since 1980, when Peking designated it a so-called Special Economic Zone. Though three other border cities in south China--Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen--also received unprecedented freedom to attract foreign money and technology, none have grown so dramatically as Shenzhen. Its population has swelled from 30,000 to about 380,000 since 1980. Shenzhen has signed more than 150 foreign-investment agreements, worth over $700 million. Some 400 businesses call Shenzhen home, with another 300 on the way. Wages average $79 a month, nearly double the rate in China's other cities.
No wonder the younger generation looks upon Shenzhen as the land of opportunity. Take Chen Li and her husband Wu Nianxing. Until a few months ago, Chen, 25, taught at a language institute and Wu, 27, worked as an industrial designer in the Hunan city of Changsha. Unhappy with their prospects, they began taking seriously stories about Shenzhen, about the wealth of jobs, high salaries and ample living quarters. Wu traveled 450 miles by train to Shenzhen and quickly found a job in an electronics plant. His wife, fluent in English, was hired by the same company as an interpreter. This summer the pair moved to Shenzhen and a life of few regrets. "Prices are a bit higher, but so are our salaries," Chen Li says. "We have a comfortable flat and enjoy our jobs. We like it here."
For China's leaders, however, the instant city has not been an instant success. Shenzhen is still booming, to be sure, but not in the direction envisioned by Peking. Last summer, Deng Xiaoping expressed caution about the city's future. Instead of proclaiming Shenzhen's progress, as he usually did, Deng described the city as an "experiment" that "could fail." Said he: "We hope it will succeed. But if it fails, we can draw lessons from it."