Pien Hsi-fang at first glance seems an unlikely object of envy in her small pottery factory. She is 40, has four children, a monthly wage of $31 and a monotonous job filling clay molds.
Unlike more than 99 percent of the Chinese population, however, she also has a television set.
In a nation where 900 million people have no more sets than the 1 million or so in the Washington metropolitan area, private ownership of a television has become a sign of prestige for a worker like Pien. Now, in what appears to be a consumer revolution in China, people here are beginning to pursue such status symbols with almost capitalistic fervor.
China's official news agency revealed this week that sales of all consumer goods are up 11 percent in the first five months of this year.Through June, sales of television sets doubled.
The administration of Communist party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng has apparently decided that providing more of the nation's most sought-after luxury item can both win popular goodwill and provide an enormously powerful medium for official propaganda. So, the government has just contracted with two Japanese firms to buy a $150 million factory capable of producing a million television sets a year.
A medium-sized black and white set there may be only 10,000 color sets (so far in the whole country) can cost from $200 to $500, at least a year's wages for many workers. A young Chinese official was skeptical when he heard Pien mention her set. His own parents were still waiting for the prices to go down. A coworker assured him, with a touch of awe in her voice, "Oh, no, she really does have a set."
In this luxury-starved nation, a worker like Pien, with a working husband and practically no rent to pay on her factory quarters, can save a great deal of money simply because there is little to spend it on. Cars, refrigerators, stoves and countless other modern devices Americans depend on are simply not for sale to individuals here.
After many factory workers received raise of about 10 percent, personal savings in urban areas like this one, 20 miles west of Canton, jumped 20 percent in the first half of this year, according to official Chinese figures. There was little else to do with the money but deposit it, since "even if you had money in China, there's been almost nothing to buy," said Grace Yuan, a Boston-area resident who recently visited relatives in China.
After a decade in which the private purchase of expensive consumer goods like televisions was often officially criticized, the new post-Mao government is going to great lengths to assure Chinese that now they may buy more and will have more to buy. Hua summed it up at a recent Peking conference: "Our fundamental purpose in developing our socialist economy and expanding production is to provide for the step-by-step improvement of the people's material well-being."
Workers like to cite this and other signs of the government's new sensitivity to the needs of the individual home and pocketbook.
"Under Chairman Hua," said Shun Yin-chiang, the production director of Piens' pottery factory, "the rent on each worker's apartment here has been cut from $2 to $1 a month."
Such well-publicized efforts on the part of the government could create a crisis of rising expectations. Hua has also called for the construction of 10 more oilfields the size of the massive northeast complex at Taching and for a nearly threefold increase in Chinese steel production by the 1985.
The push for heavy industry is certain to make the production of light industrial consumer goods more difficult. Peking leaders appear to be trying to restrict consumer appetities to the few items that are already on every family's shopping list - wrist-watches, radios, electric fans, bicycles, television sets and sewing machines - and forego any effort to stimulate Chinese tastes for the more exotic varieties of Western consumption, like blenders.
Most Chinese will quickly tell visitors what they have their eyes on at the local department store.
"I know just the transistor radio I want," said tourist guide Hsiao Wei-kuo. "It's $60 at the store, so I have to keep saving. I don't know where my money goes. My mother keeps asking me if I have a girlfriend."
The Chinese leadership has tried to ease the life of its population in small ways, through measures such as a large purchases of Philippine sugar, to increase the production of candy and other treats. As one official Chinese news item bragged early in July: "China's largest city, Shanghai, is providing 25 percent more popsicles and ice cream, 11 percent more carbonated drinks and 35 percent more beer this summer than in 1977."
More toys also produce more cheap thrills.
"Toy shops, major department stores and parks here have a new range of toys on the eve of Childrens' Day," said another official news item from Shanghai in May. "Thousands upon thousands of children and adults are snapping them up."
In the meantime, the pressure on stores selling durable items continues. When the Nanfang department store in Canton put a small, $15 fan on display in early July, its counter was swamped and its stock was sold out in a day. A supervisor in the sewing machine department said, "I sell about 100 machines a month, but I could easily sell much more. People often have to wait five or six months now before they get what they ordered."
Workers who wish to buy bicycles or sewing machines must often first obtain a special ticket from their factory, which certifies that they have moved to the top of the waiting list for high demand items. A plain black Feng Huang (Phoenix) bicycle costs almost $100 in Canton, but in times of slow production the long waiting list is a far more formidable obstacle to eager consumers than the price.
When Grace Yuan visited her relatives in Shanghai, "They asked me to buy a sewing machine for them at the Friendship store," she said, referring to the stores set aside in large cities for the use of foreigners and some high Chinese officials.
"As an overseas Chinese, I'm entitled to buy one if I show my passport. Otherwise they might have to wait a very long time for their turn."
The demand for cloth is even stronger, with most city residents limited to no more than six yards of good cotton material a year. Chinese are known to sell their cotton ration tickets for cash. Along the main streets of smaller cities like Kweilin some people can be seen literally dressed in rags. Second-hand clothing stores do a lively business.
Chemical fiber factories, receiving the benefits of China's growing domestic oil production, are under orders to step up production rapidly.
"We are doing our best to carry out Chairman Hau Kou-feng's instruction: Develop the textile industry at high speed, and solve the people's clothing problem faster and better," said Textile Minister Chien Chih-kuang recently.
A visitor to a Chinese department store rarely fails, however, to overhear a customer complaining about shoddy workmanship, and a new campaign to improve the quality of products may cut into government plans to increase quantities.
A lengthy article in the official party monthly Red Flag examined the issue. It said recent factory slogans like "One is as good as two" and "Not a single flaw in 10,000 meters of cloth" had somewhat reversed "the seriously deteriorating quality of products," but added that "the situation in which certain products are extremely poor in quality still exists."
"We must pay attention to quality," the article said. "We would rather have less but better products and a complete range of products."
Complaints about chinese-designed television sets appear to be part of the reason for the government's new interest in Japanese production methods and models. The government is also obviously intrigued with the idea of accelerating the movements of sets into individual homes so that, as Hua said in February, "maximum use could be made of this medium for both education and propaganda."
Television has begun to become a focus of social life in urban china, and even in some rural areas television sets are sometimes found in common rooms. Television began in China as a communal experience, with factories or neighborhoods buying sets for general use. Individual families now acquiring sets find their neighbors have even less reluctance to barge in than do Americans who learn that a neighbor has just built a swimming pool.
"People come over all the time, they don't seem to think they need an invitation," said one young Chinese whose Canton parents bought a set late last year. The evening programming has its official newsreels and lectures on Marxist theory, but Chairman Hua not withstanding, that is not what people come for.
"Sports and old movies," said the member of the new television family, "that's what everybody wants to see."