China's youngsters see a rose-tinted future: Economic reforms have contributed to a radical change in outlook for the next generation, writes Teresa Poole in Wuhan

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AT WUHAN'S biggest state-run youth 'fun palace', officials are considering restoring the outdoor model of the Long March. The garden of miniature mountains and rivers for teaching about the Red Army's spirit of endurance was closed in 1988 because of renovations at the youth centre.

The centre's deputy director, Zhu Bin, said: 'People in their thirties used to have this programme when they were young. It is mainly for revolutionary education . . . It is also for fun. We plan to add modern facilities, like the imitation rolling of waves.'

In the meantime, less-revolutionary activities seem to pre-occupy the teenagers and twenty- somethings of Wuhan, one of China's biggest inland industrial cities. Dancing, karaoke and billiards are the most popular entertainments provided at the complex, none of which would have been available 10 years ago. At 4pm on a rainy Friday afternoon during an official visit, the main hall of the 'ballroom' building was dark and smoky, with dozens of high-spirited boys and girls in their early twenties dancing to loud disco music.

That evening a more studious scene would have been on show - the other side of how China's economic reforms have affected the city's younger generation. Children and teenagers come after school to the fun palace's large classroom block for extra classes in arts and science subjects, sports, music and painting.

Wuhan has four fun palaces, which provide recreation centres and extra-curricular activities. A decade of change has relaxed many things - a second dance hall in this one, for instance, offered double-width 'love seats' for courting couples. But the economic reforms have also brought tremendous academic pressures for some children. Getting into the best schools and universities is one route to the new lucrative job opportunities.

Sun Zhi Zhun, a senior official from Wuhan's Youth League, the Communist Party organisation for 14 to 28 year-olds, explained: 'Children come here as young as three or four. Their interests are broader; they like dancing, piano and painting and so on. But the requests from the parents are stricter. Parents like to invest more money in the education of their children. In the evenings and on holidays, parents bring their children here and wait for them to be trained. Because of reform, competition is very strong.'

Those parents are of the generation whose own education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. 'So they rely on the younger generation for their hopes . . . We can understand the stress on children,' said Mr Sun.

At the Wuhan Foreign Languages School, one of the city's key secondary schools, 9,000 primary school children applied for last year's 120-place intake. About 95 per cent of the students go on to university. They are Wuhan's educational elite, China's future middle class. This generation grew up with the reforms: teenage aspirations have changed.

A group of a dozen final-year students, aged 17 and 18, all fluent in English, were aware of a greater freedom to choose their future careers. 'International trade, but I think there may be too many people who are going to do it. So then I want to be in hotel management,' one said. 'I want to be a businesswoman, and then politics,' another said. 'It's not easy for women, the heads of our country are all men.' 'Computers, an electronics engineer,' a third said. 'I want to improve our country's pop-music levels,' was the ambition of a fourth.

For many the change in emphasis over the past decade seemed also to have been confusing. 'Before, my parents wanted me to study more, because knowledge was most important. Now thay have changed a little and money is more important . . . I think money is very important. People should have enough money to lead happy lives,' said one. 'Before we learned that the planned economy was very good. Now . . . we have to say that the market economy is good. It makes me puzzled, ' said another.

A teacher at the school said he thought the children were very naive compared with their Western counterparts. 'Besides books they know very little. Their parents educate them to concentrate on studies. Sometimes there is too much pressure on the children . . . Children have the habit of relying on their parents.'

But better material standards have made a big impact. One boy said: 'If you gave me money and told me to spend it . . . Before we would buy salt and washing powder . . . Now people know how to enjoy themselves. We can buy karaoke and tapes. People in China used to reject things from abroad. Now they no longer do.' Another added: 'When I was 10 years old, my parents kept buying some wonderful things - TV, washing machine, and a fridge. Before that I never imagined we could buy so many things.'

Three of the group said openly that they did not want to join the Communist Party 'I am not so interested in politics, you can still do well if you are not a party member,' said one. Three of the girls also said they did not want the 'burden' of children.

Asked how the reforms had changed life, the most poetic description came from one of the girls. 'The colours have changed a lot. If you came to China 10 years ago, there were red songs and red flags. And that was the colour of our thoughts. Now you have the colours of the clothes and the the words of the new songs, white for pure friendship and pink for romantic love. The colours stand for our minds.'

(Photograph omitted)