With a red carnation on each table and imported crystal chandeliers overhead, the Dream Shanghai restaurant is a popular haunt for the newly affluent in this resurgent port city.

"People are willing to spend in Shanghai," said Vincent Ye, whose family owns the restaurant. "They always want to go to the best place, the most expensive place."This is one side of communist China today, an awakening giant of nearly 1.2 billion people that is marching doublestep toward the 21st century, shedding Marxist baggage along the way.

But travel 530 miles to the southwest, into the interior of the vast nation, and you will find many peasants are receiving just crumbs, if anything, from China's economic revolution.

Tucked away in southern Jiangxi province are peasants such as Li Yitang, so poor he eats pork only rarely and fish is a delicacy indulged just once or twice a year.

Sitting in a neighbor's decrepit home, flies buzzing around, Li explains what the emerging market economy means to him. "If you have money, you can get anything." Left unsaid was the corollary: Without money, you get nothing.

That is not what Chairman Mao Tse-tung had in mind when he founded the People's Republic of China in 1949. His vision was to build an egalitarian society. Everyone would contribute, everyone would be cared for.

By the time he died in 1976, however, China was a country destitute and broken in spirit, exhausted by a progression of vicious political campaigns that culminated in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. It was left to Deng Xiaoping, Mao's old comrade-in-arms who was disgraced twice for his pragmatism, to pick up the pieces.

Today, in the centenary of Mao's birth on Dec. 26, 1893 (see related story on page A17), much of China is unrecognizable from what the "Great Helmsman" left behind, particularly the coastal regions that have attracted the most foreign investment.

When Mao died, a single-speed bicycle was among a city resident's most prized possessions. Just about everyone wore standard blue Mao suits. The few state-run restaurants closed early and served a limited selection of greasy and grimy dishes.

Today, a select few urbanites are rich enough to have their own Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac or Rolls-Royce. Many more can afford portable telephones. Even more have refrigerators. Who doesn't have a color TV?

Most cities boast hundreds if not thousands of eateries, from the corner noodle stand to lavish restaurants such as Dream Shanghai. Residents with a hankering for the truly exotic can eat at McDonald's, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There is even enough money to fuel a glut of karaoke bars, where patrons can drink the finest wine while singing the most maudlin songs, and an explosion of boutiques offering fashions by Benetton, Pierre Cardin and Mexx.

Life also has improved in much of the countryside, home to 850 million peasants.

Television aerials and private motorcycles zipping down back roads are common sights in rural China. New homes sporting decorative tile can be found even in poorer areas.

In the decade after Mao's death, the number of "absolute poor" peasants fell from 260 million to 96 million, according to World Bank statistics.

Fueling the boom - economic growth has been racing along at 13 percent annually - is Deng's market-style economic reforms.

They began in rural China, where farmers can now sell some of their crop on the free market instead of to the state. Much of the excess labor is channeled into local industries or heads to the coastal regions in search of factory and construction jobs.

The reforms then extended to the cities, where entrepreneurial Chinese have opened restaurants, beauty parlors, schools, even detective agencies. Despite the impressive progress, there is a dark side to Deng's revolution.

The gap between haves and have-nots is expanding. It is easily visible in the cities. But the main problem is the distance between the rich coast and the rural interior, where income growth is lagging far behind.

That is a ticking bomb for the leadership, as is China's huge population despite a Draconian policy that limits most couples to one child.

Deng's policies also have tapped a rich vein of greed, leading to endemic corruption. The ruling Communist Party has launched an anti-graft campaign, but its chances for success seem slim because there are no elections to make the leadership accountable to the masses.

Indeed, the Communists have adamantly rejected easing their grip on politics. Dissidents are jailed and speech is tightly restricted.

Popular indignation exploded in 1989, but the huge anti-government protests of the democracy movement were quelled by the military. Further unrest may occur when Deng, 89 and ailing, dies.

View Comments

For now, the Chinese try to cope with the disorienting changes in their lives. Some are showing renewed interest in Chairman Mao, whose early years as leader are seen as a time of relatively clean government and clear national purpose.

So today it is like this for many Chinese:

For things material, learn from Deng Xiaoping.

For things spiritual, learn from Chairman Mao.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.