By western standards, Wang Chunzhi does not look wealthy. She wears plain clothes and lives at the end of a muddy lane in an ill-lit house with bare cement floors.
But by local standards, Wang, a widow, is rich. This street peddler who came here seven years ago has built a six-room house was able to pay for the construction of her three-story house for $7,800.
Not long ago, each adult member of the Wang household acquired a gold ring, another symbol of new affluence.
Wang's son and his wife and their three children live with her in the house's six rooms, for a living space of 200 square feet per person. That is nearly three times the average floor space of China's urban residents.
As for the mayor's effort to pick up the pace in Wuhan, early this year he made an unannounced visit to a passenger ship ticket office on the Yangtze River to see what kind of service the passengers were getting. Not knowing that they were dealing with the mayor, office staff members treated Wu rudely and even cursed him when he asked for information. He decided then to improve services not only at the ticket office but throughout the city.
In a sense, what Wu and other city officials have done is simply to encourage many Chinese to resume doing what once was common: buying and selling. Hanzheng Street, where Wang has her stalls, was site of a major market for 400 years. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, it supplied most of central China with consumer items.
This street that winds for nearly three miles was nearly closed in 1949, when the Communists came to power. In 1979, when business was allowed to revive, only a dozen traders were reported to be working on Hanzheng Street.
Today the street boasts of 1,542 shops. During the first eight months of this year, they did the equivalent of $18.7 million in business, according to official statistics. State and collectively owned enterprises on the street did nearly four times that much business, bringing the total volume of business for that street alone over the eight months to nearly $100 million.
Most of the collectives are joint ventures set up by neighborhoods or by villages near Wuhan and are financed by bank loans and neighborhood investments. Some of them are staffed by retirees and formerly unemployed youths.
The private businesses include restaurants and food stalls, repair and service shops, transportation companies, small industrial and commercial establishments and many "mom and pop" operations along the lines of Wang's.
In Wuhan, individuals who have done as well in private business as Wang, becoming what is considered rich by local standards, number only in the hundreds, according to officials here. But they say that at this stage of economic development, it is perfectly permissible for some citizens to "get rich first."
Everyone admits, however, that there is a problem in this. The new wealth of a relatively small number of individuals, such as Wang, tends to create envy among the many who have not done so well. When that envy assumes an extreme form, Chinese refer to it as the red-eye disease.
Red-eye disease helps explain why many low-paid government officials have tried to open businesses, which they are not permitted to do. On Oct. 28, the official China Daily newspaper reported that nearly 9,000 businesses formed by Communist Party or government departments had to be closed following a nationwide investigation. More than 50,000 party and government officials were ordered to sever their connections with those businesses, the English-language paper said.
Xiong Zhongling, an official who accompanied a reporter on a visit with Wang, said that he had managed to avoid the red-eye disease. But he acknowledged that he earned much less than she and that he and his wife and two children lived in an apartment much smaller than her new home.
Xiong, who is the director of an administrative office for Hanzheng Street, said, "Before you do this work, you have to get rid of the red-eye disease."
Xiong said that on more than 30 occasions, merchants had offered him wine, food and cigarettes, and in one case even a gold ring, for such favors as the granting of a business license. He said he had turned all the gifts down.
The government official indicated, however, that the temptation to say yes to such offers might be too great for some officials. "If you want to become rich these days in an illegal way, it's really quite easy," he said.