The severe shortage of housing in China is the most obvious economic deficiency in the Peoples Republic, and it is so pervasive that the problem cannot be solved soon.
Take the case of Kuo Su Feng, 26, a young foreign service officer specializing in "American and oceanic affairs." Kuo (professionally, she uses her maiden name) was assigned to accompany reporters covering Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal's economic mission here.
Recently, she married a foreign service colleague, and each moved out of the dormitories provided by the Foreign Ministry and into their own quarters -- a single room.
"When will you get your own apartment?" Kuo was asked. She laughed. "That will be many, many years," she said.
Inadequate housing is a limiting factor not only for the masses of Chinese jammed in existing facilities of mostly poor quality: It is also a bottleneck in achieving the "four modernizations" now established as the country's main goal.
Foreigners seeking to do business in China and news organizations trying to set up bureaus must settle for skimpy hotel rooms for long periods of time. The hotels themselves, except for a few such as the Peking and the Min Zu hotels here, or the Ching Chiang in Shanghai, are not up to American standards.
To accommodate the wave of foreign tourists already beginning to inundate the major cities, the Chinese are trying desperately to upgrade a few rooming houses that, up to now, have been used by Chinese tourists, to bridge the gap before completion of modern hotels being built by Pan American World Airways and other foreign consortiums.
Meanwhile, there is evidence of a painfully slow effort to build some modern high-rise apartments to supplement the scattered units now sticking up above the mostly low-lying, drab gray houses dominating Peking.
At a new housing project just a couple of miles from the famous T'ien-an Men square, site of the Great Hall of the People, Wang Ping-hua, 47, the project manager, said in a matter-of-fact way that four of five buildings in the 700-unit project would be for workers and clerks, while one would be for "experts" such as scientists and senior engineers.
The essential difference between lower-class and upper-class apartments is size. Two elevators will serve the 12-story workers' buildings, with six for the 15-story experts building. Workers will pay about 7 yuan rent a month, or about $4.50, while the better apartments will go for almost three times that much.
The construction throughout is concrete over steel framing. The floor plans looked pretty basic, although there was a surprising use of interior glass to let light through one room to another. The kitchens seemed sparse. No space is allowed for refrigerators (and if a family decides to buy one, it's expensive -- about 900 to 1,100 yuan, or $575 to $700). Instead, families are encouraged to market daily.
A stove doesn't come with the apartment either -- but there's space for one, with some kitchens having exhaust hoods already built in. A two-burner gas stove will cost the renter about 30 yuan, or about $20.
But the important thing to remember is that no single family ever occupies a single apartment. Thus, when the 700-unit apartment is finished, it may house a couple of thousand families. In a five-room apartment in the "experts"' wing, there might be four bedrooms, one sitting room, one kitchen, one bathroom and one extra toilet.
It would not be unusual for at least four families to live in such an apartment, each having a bedroom and sharing the common rooms. The bedrooms are about 10 by 12 feet, with the sitting rooms about 12 by 16 feet. (In an occupied housing project in Shanghai, three or four persons sharing one bed appeared to be a common practice).
In the less desirable workers' accommodations, two families might share a two-bedroom apartment with no sitting room but one kitchen and one bathroom. A typical bedroom in such an apartment is about 8 by 12 feet, with a closet built in.
Hot-water radiators are heated by central, oil-fired burners. The cement floors are covered with plastic tile, the walls painted white or light blue.
Wang, who said he had 20 years experience as a foreman, calculated that the average construction worker makes about 70 yuan a month, or about $42.80, but specialists such as bricklayers, after passing the requisite tests, can get up to 90 yuan a month ($57.60).
Not surprisingly, since this project was hand-picked by the government, Wang said that workers are performing better now because they are stimulated by the new system of incentive pay "which didn't exist during (Mao's) cultural revolution.
Over tea in a nearly completed apartment, Wang said, "When there were no tests for advancement the worker said, 'What differences does it make?' The tests were stopped because of the interference of the Gang of Four." Wang said his own salary is 82 yuan a month (less than some of the men he supervises), although he has an engineering degree from the Nanking Structural Engineering Institute.
The work day normally is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, "but sometimes, when it's necessary, we'll work for two weeks without a day off, and then get a day off later," Wang said.
And what are the rewards for good work? They vary, but are paid in cash, usually at mid year and the end of the year, although it's not uncommon for a worker to get something extra at the end of every month, Wang said.
And how about Wang's private life? "It's quite all right," he said, with Kuo listening closely. He has a Chinese-made black-and-white TV set for which he paid 430 yuan (about $275) three years ago and his family of four owns one bicycle. (In stores here and in Shanghai, TV sets now seem higher-priced) and bicycles cost a minimum of 150 yuan, (about $100). Color sets are in the stores. But one sees them mostly in the foyers of the main hotels, where workers gather nightly to see their favorite programs.