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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.

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."

This view is common among the educated urban young. To the rest of the world, China may look like the 800-pound gorilla, but Michael and Fanny feel as though they're scrambling to catch up. "We are now turning to capitalism, but we can't call it that, because people would revolt," Michael says with a laugh.

The approved term for China's economic system is "Chinese specialized socialism," but nobody under 30 is fooled.

Fanny is a marketing student who likes French brands like Chanel and Dior. "Why not?" she laughs. "Life is short."

She has a part-time job at a record company, choosing Western music to import for the Chinese youth market. All the music must be approved by the government. One importer was arrested not long ago because, without realizing it, he had released a song that mentioned a Tibetan dissident. But Fanny is not particularly outraged. She's simply impatient.

"The government can afford to be more confident," Michael agrees. "After all, it was the Communist Party that saved China and developed the country and brought people a better life."

To the members of Michael and Fanny's generation, the madness of the Cultural Revolution is ancient history. They are not bitter about what happened then, as so many of their parents are. To them, those dark years were simply an awful diversion of China's great march into the modern world. They feel the same about the massacre at Tiananmen. They were children then. It was unfortunate, but has nothing to do with their lives today.

Maybe democracy is all right for other places, they figure. But China is too sprawling and its challenges are too great. It needs a strong hand. Besides, why change a system that's working?

And yet people can go to Starbucks and choose from 40 different kinds of coffee. Won't those people some day want to choose their leaders too?

"I don't think much about those political questions," Fanny says. "I like to worry about things I can do something about. Have you heard of Craig Kielburger?" She eagerly describes the Canadian kid who campaigns for children's rights in Third World sweatshops, which she has heard of, though not in China. "Maybe I can donate money to him."

Back home, in the Ma family's living room, are two prominent statues flanking the TV. Michael can see them both from his bed. One is a ceramic copy of a camel from the Tang dynasty. It is a reminder of the time when China's merchant caravans roamed the earth and China was the greatest trading nation in the world. The other is a silver statue of a golfer, obviously Caucasian, about to take a swing. Michael's aunt gave it to him for his birthday to celebrate his fast-rising status in the Poly Group.

China will be great again, and Michael Ma, with one foot in the East and another in the West, will be a part of it. "China is open to everybody," he insists. "The people are open-minded. This is China's renaissance."

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