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In this Beijing family, ties still bind -- comfortably

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Michael's father, 54, works as a technician for a state-owned film company. He has had the same job for 37 years, and he and his family live in an apartment block the company built. They bought their unit for $5,000 when the government brought back private ownership in the late 1990s. It's in a good location, and today is worth 10 times that much.

Mrs. Ma used to work for the Number 5 Semiconductor Company, which was involved in China's space project. She was laid off six years ago when the factory, a big polluter, moved out of the city and downsized. Now, she keeps house and collects a modest pension. She always gets up early to make Michael breakfast. Putting him through college ate up most of their savings, but they managed with a little help from relatives.

The Mas take home the equivalent of about $450 a month. Their health care used to be free, but now the government pays only 80 per cent, and there's a $300-a-year deductible. People gripe about the change, but Mr. Ma thinks that it's a sound policy. "Health care is a big burden for the government, and free health care causes a lot of waste," he says. "We are into a market economy now, and you have to spend what you earn."

Like most Beijingers, Michael's parents give high marks to the government. "People believe in the Communist Party," Mr. Ma says. "It took the people from poverty to prosperity."

Mrs. Ma agrees. The only downside, she says, is that there is less stability. Migrant labourers are flooding into Beijing. Crime rates have gone up. And corruption is a serious problem. "We are in the early stages of reform, so there is a big gap between rich and poor," says Mr. Ma, who follows the news closely. "We hope the government can clean up the problem, but it's a difficult job."

Would democracy ever work in China? They fall silent for a moment, then laugh and shake their heads.

Michael works in the trading arm of Poly Group. Until a few years ago, it was owned by the People's Liberation Army, and was a big player in the arms trade. Today, its interests are in real estate, trade and entertainment. It has two stylish office towers in Beijing, but is building another, even grander, landmark across the road. "Building Structure Wonder of National Cream," reads the giant sign in front of the future Poly Plaza.

Michael's fluency in French and English makes him a valuable asset. French is an essential language for doing business in certain parts of Africa, and the company has already dispatched him there three times. The Chinese ambassador opens doors for him. It's the same in Paris, where people are lining up to trade with the Chinese.

Michael doesn't think he will be doing this forever. He really wants to be an entrepreneur. "This job is not about the money -- it's about the experience," he says. And the connections, he adds. He is held in such esteem that he has been invited to join his work unit's team for golf, a super-elite sport in China. They're even paying for his lessons.

Michael thinks China has much to learn from the West. "I wanted to learn languages so that I could understand a different way of thinking," he says. "We are too cautious. We worry too much about what other people will think. Sometimes we should just act, whether it's the right thing or not."

But he doesn't want to be Western. "If you lose your traditional culture, if you lose your history, then you lose something very valuable."

Michael has met a girl on the Internet named Fanny. He likes her a lot. When they meet face to face for the first time over coffee at Starbucks, they trade views on the strengths and weaknesses of the new China. "We just assemble things for other people, we don't originate," Fanny says. "Other countries control what we do."

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