The Communist leadership has moved to bolster China's fledgling private sector by giving symbolic political power to a handful of capitalist entrepreneurs.
Two self-employed businessmen have been named as the first representatives of private business to sit in the nation's nominal parliament when it convenes next week, the official New China News Agency reported today. Several other "new capitalists" have been selected for provincial and county legislative bodies, the National Women's Congress and Communist Youth League.
Although their influence will scarcely count in a nation tightly ruled by the Communist Party, the political knighting of people scorned a few years ago as "evil speculators" is seen as a significant official gesture to encourage growth of the capitalist sphere.
Diplomats said the move further endorses the unorthodox market socialism of leader Deng Xiaoping as he wards off persistent opposition from leftists who regard private enterprise as "retrogression."
Deng and the scientific socialists who run China began promoting private business in 1978 as a way to absorb growing numbers of jobless youth and to expand consumer services in Chinese cities wracked by shortages.
Nearly 3.2 million merchants, craftsmen and restaurateurs have set up their own small enterprises, bypassing the huge state sector that employs three of every four Chinese workers in everything from department stores to defense industries. China's state-run, urban labor force numbers 105 million.
While they enjoy big incomes and occupational freedom permitted few Chinese, the private entrepreneurs often complain of official harassment from state banks that refuse to loan them money and state-run warehouses that hold back wholesale supplies. Many fear a resurgence of the Maoist egalitarianism that led to beatings of so-called "capitalist tails" in the 1960s and 1970s.
In this context, the election of private photographer Bai Shiming and tavern owner Wei Junhong to the National People's Congress is seen as an important boost to the self-employed, bestowing political stature on them, however modest.
"The state protects the individual economy and those who engage in the economy are esteemed by the people and enjoy equal political rights with workers in state-owned enterprises," said Hao Haifeng, an official of the National Industry and Commerce Administration.
As parliamentary delegates, Bai, 28, and Wei, 23, will form a tiny bloc in the 2,978-member body. The legislature is billed as an independent, policy-making organ, but in practice it merely rubber stamps party decrees.
Nevertheless, the participation of the young capitalists in a national political event--as well as their colleagues' involvement in local legislatures--is viewed as a symbol of the regime's commitment to a mixed economy with consumer orientation.
"It's pretty dramatic," a western economic analyst said. "They're institutionalizing a whole new interest group with quite a different approach."
The political evolution of China's entrepreneurs caps a five-year spurt of rapid growth--they increased almost tenfold since 1978--and expansion into such state-run areas as education, health care and housing.
Their progress has been fostered by new laws protecting private business interests. Other measures have been enacted allowing the self-employed to hire apprentices, borrow from banks, buy mechanized tools and operate processing shops.
Entrepreneurs even have been allowed to organize business federations, which offer technical training to newcomers and report problems to government agencies.
Still, leftist resistance is strong enough for Peking police last winter to have harassed and confiscated the goods of a vendor who had a government license to sell fruit. Her elderly mother was badly beaten up by police when she tried to intervene.
Local Communist bosses publicly apologized for the incident and agreed to pay $350 for the mother's hospitalization. Officials, however, said the case typifies the difficulties private merchants face daily.