China's recipe for success can leave bad taste: Teresa Poole meets a successful restaurateur in Wuhan who hankers for the days of Mao

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN the suburbs of this sprawling, grey, industrial, inland city no visitor need go hungry. A short walk, for example, from the government guesthouse where Mao Tse-tung used to stay during his visits, a multitude of small private restaurants tout for business, woks at the ready.

If proof were needed that China's economic reforms have rolled in from the coastal areas and transformed life in the interior cities, a stroll past the night market fruit stalls and into Mrs Wang's welcoming kitchen might well be enough. Except that Mrs Wang's version of the new China is not quite the advertisement the authorities want.

Mrs Wang's restaurant deserved a second visit, not least because my interpreter knew she kept a healthy supply of live eels ready for the pot. She was pleased to see a free-spending foreigner back, and, when the other diners had departed, perched on a wooden stool for a chat.

Mrs Wang (not her real name) was a smiling, plump 41-year-old with two children. During the day she worked in a fertiliser factory for the princely sum of 130 yuan ( pounds 14) a month. The Wangs opened the restaurant in 1988 and then moved into these premises, a two-storey building with about six tables in the front room and a rough but clean kitchen where a black-and-white television was blaring. Fresh vegetables were piled in one corner, and bowls of meat and live fish in another. It employed four women, who were paid 80 yuan a month plus lodging.

This was the sort of endeavour the reforms of Deng Xiaoping had made possible. But Mrs Wang, it turned out, was far from convinced it was wholly a good thing.

Her complaints went something like this: 'Nowadays there are better living standards but you don't know what's going to change and you feel worried. The relationships between people have changed, everyone is looking for money.'

Corruption was the main problem. An official had opened a restaurant near by but had not been doing as well. 'So he sent a junior official from his department to my restaurant, and he took away the television and the fridge and some furniture.' She refused to close, but never got the things back, and there was no way to complain. 'And the tax man comes, and he won't give a receipt. And the police come round, and they take dinner. It was better in the Sixties and Seventies, because the (Communist) Party was in control. Even when we were poor, it was stable, steady.'

She preferred Mao Tse-tung to Deng Xiaoping; the old days were better. She did not like the economic policy of opening up. 'Without this we can still eat,' she said.

Official corruption is breeding great discontent among workers, who have little redress against cadres who overstep the mark. Campaigns to stamp out corruption pop up regularly.

For Mrs Wang, economic reform can sometimes mean working much harder, than before, and watching others with connections get rich much quicker. Her father had been a senior Communist Party member. She had not been able to join, but wanted her children to be members, she said, but not corrupt ones.

Still, the restaurant was not going badly, though she wanted better premises. And the bill? About pounds 3 for two including beer - or, nearly a week's salary from the factory.