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In this Beijing family, ties still bind -- comfortably

The Mas are the quintessential Chinese clan circa 2004 - two traditionalist parents, one globe-hopping grown-up child, all sharing the same two-room apartment. They love their new relative prosperity, but still care for old Confucian values. And they just laugh at the idea of democracy. MARGARET WENTE pays a visit

Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — In English, Ma Ziteng calls himself Michael. In French, he's Matthieu. At 23, he not only speaks French and English, he thinks in them. He's in only his first job but, as a product manager in a state-owned trading conglomerate, he already makes more money than both of his parents put together.

He is impatient to learn, to see, and to get ahead, not just to make money, but to make his place in the world. And impatient for his country too. "We've wasted 20 years," he says. "That's why we're in a hurry."

The Mas are a living example of what China is becoming. On the surface, the generations could not be more different. Michael's parents love Beijing Opera; he loves Celine Dion. His parents like to relax by walking in the park; he likes to relax at Starbucks. They know nothing of the West beyond what they've seen on TV; their son has been to Paris four times. He chose the name Michael in honour of his favourite sports stars, Michael Jordan and Michael Schumacher.

Michael's father, Ma Baolong, once belonged to the Red Guard, the radical student group that Mao ordered to crush the capitalist-roaders. Michael is a capitalist-roader, part of the brilliant young meritocracy that one day will run the country.

And yet parents and son share values that run far deeper than their tastes. They are hard-working, close-knit, loyal. Michael is his parents' only child, and they invested everything they had in him.

"We tried not to spoil him," says his gentle, sweet-faced mother, Xu Lizhi. "But sometimes it was hard not to."

No one would say Michael is spoiled. He still lives in the family's tiny fifth-floor walkup. "I'll live here as long as they want me to," he says. The lanky, globetrotting young businessman sleeps on a bed in a corner of the living room.

Michael Ma may be Westernized, but he's also Chinese to the core. He is deeply filial, a word that sounds strange in English because the West has no exact equivalent for the deep-rooted Chinese obligation to respect, obey and honour your parents. It was Confucius's first precept for living an ethical life. The selfishness of the younger generation is a popular theme in this country today, but Michael's parents have nothing but praise. "He is a good son," his mother says, beaming.

Michael's parents also think that the government has done a good job guiding the country to its new prosperity. They bring home the equivalent of about $5,500 a year between them, which is average by Beijing standards. They have just about everything they could want.

"In the old days, we never ate meat more than once a week," Mrs. Ma says as she dishes up a huge dinner of chicken, beef, shrimp, impeccably fresh vegetables, egg soup and watermelon. "Now, we have meat every day."

Their spotless apartment has only two rooms, plus a tiny kitchen and bathroom, but their furniture is up-to-date. A splendid bookcase displays Mr. Ma's collection, including the complete lyrics of every Beijing opera. A popular Chinese soap (featuring a neurotic housewife in love with a married doctor) is playing on the TV in the living room.

"With the improvement in our living standards, people began to want more variety in programming," Mr. Ma says. Now, they can watch movies, travel shows, even American shows with steamy love scenes. The nightly news features attractive young broadcasters delivering the latest updates on corruption scandals and Olympics triumphs. The state-owned media carry frequent stories about the AIDS crisis, corrupt officials and rural poverty, and even editorials that are sometimes mildly critical of government policies.

Twenty years ago, the Big Three consumer items were a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle. Today, they are a TV, a refrigerator and a microwave oven. The Mas have all of these, plus a second TV, a cordless phone and an air conditioner.

The next Big Three are a car, a big house and surround sound. But the Mas aren't interested. They never even eat out, because restaurant food, they both agree, has too much MSG.

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