STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can sense the enormous change in China by following the fortunes of just one Chinese family. Anybody who's shopped at Wal-Mart knows the way that China's changing our lives. And if you think that's unsettling for Americans, consider the Chinese.

Just like the U.S., China's new economy creates many winners and many losers. NPR's Frank Langfitt found both among the Gong brothers of Beijing. And Frank, what drew you to them?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, one of the things is that they fared very differently in this competitive economy. You know, before, in the '70s, China was pretty equal and communist, and they really went in different directions. And I sort of wanted to go back in January to see what had happened to them.

INSKEEP: You're saying that years ago, these three brothers might have ended up sharing about the same economic fate - not making a lot of money, not making too little money - and now things are different.

LANGFITT: They lived together for 40 years in the same house, exactly the same standard of living. And if you want to see what that means, you could follow me into an old, gray, brick alley in Beijing. This is where the three Gong brothers grew up.

As kids in the '50s, they shot marbles here and played soccer, just as kids do today in what remains of the neighborhood. It's a throwback to the old communal way of life. Hawkers ride through on bikes, offering to fluff up quilts.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Sell vegetables...

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Or sharpen people's knives.

(Soundbite of clanging)

LANGFITT: Under Mao Tse-Tsung, most people owned the same things, and lifestyles were pretty comparable. Six years ago, the government demolished most of the alley to make way for high-rise apartments and a new, four-lane road to handle the city's exploding traffic.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

LANGFITT: As authorities prepared to level their home, the Gong brothers took their compensation from the government and moved away. Each settled onto a different rung on China's economic ladder. When I returned this year, I first went to see Wencong, the most successful brother. Today, he lives on the fourth floor of an apartment block in the suburbs.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

LANGFITT: When I arrive, he's watching an NBA game on a giant-screen TV. The two-bedroom apartment looks nothing like the cramped house he shared with his brothers. It's filled with gleaming Ming and Qing Dynasty-style furniture.

At age 57, Wencong is just back from his first trip abroad. He went to South Korea and the demilitarized zone.

Mr. WENCONG GONG: (Through translator) I looked through binoculars. I felt North Korea was a very poor place. They're not flexible, they aren't open. They're like China was before.

LANGFITT: In addition to his trip, Wencong has even bigger news.

Mr. W. GONG: (Chinese spoken)

LANGFITT: I bought a car, he says. What brand, I ask.

Mr. W. GONG: (Chinese spoken)

LANGFITT: That's BMW, or treasure horse in Chinese. It cost $47,000.

I'm not surprised Wencong has done well. He was the most outgoing of the three brothers. He also adapted faster to the shift from a communist system to one where people profit from their work.

Some people are nostalgic for the egalitarian ways of Beijing's old alleys, but Wencong looks at the city's modern face and sees nothing but progress.

Mr. W. GONG: (Through translator) When I used to live in a courtyard house, I'd go to the public bathroom. There was always a line. Now, you don't have to use them. People have their own bathrooms. There's heat, and they're clean.

LANGFITT: Modern in most ways, Wencong keeps a few reminders of the past.

(Soundbite of crickets)

LANGFITT: In his bedroom, he has two pet crickets. He keeps them in gourds, just as the emperors did long ago.

Wencong says he lives better because he was driven to. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the government forced Wencong and millions of others to work in the countryside. Describing a decade of hard labor, his eyes glisten with anger.

Mr. W. GONG: (Through translator): When I was sent down to the countryside, I did all sorts of hard work - the dirtiest work, the most tiring work, scooping up dung. I did it all.

LANGFITT: He returned to Beijing in the 1970s, eager to improve his lot. As China began to move towards a market economy, Wencong found a niche. He started selling vegetables wholesale to private vendors. The new system rewarded initiative. He earned bonuses and put in 14-hour days.

Mr. W. GONG: (Through translator) Anything is better than plowing the field. So any job I could get, I worked hard.

LANGFITT: A long time ago, when I first met Wencong, he told me another way wholesalers made money: Corrupt ones could falsify invoices and pocket the proceeds.

Wencong is retired now. His government pension is just $180 a month. I ask how he could afford such a nice car. He becomes angry and defensive.

Mr. W. GONG: (Through translator) I drive a BMW. Is there a problem?

LANGFITT: Many Chinese suspect the country's nouveau riche of corruption. He thinks I'm investigating him.

Mr. W. GONG: (Chinese spoken)

LANGFITT: He nearly kicks me out of the apartment. I tell him I'm implying nothing, and he insists he's done nothing wrong.

Before the family home was demolished six years ago, Wencong's younger brother, Wenju, moved out as well. Today he's retired, living in a tiny house on the edge of town. I take a taxi to see him.

His lifestyle is very different from his wealthier brother's. He doesn't drive a BMW. He greets me on his bike.

Mr. WENJU GONG: (Chinese spoken)

LANGFITT: Wenju leads me along a dusty alley to his three-room house. A blanket hangs in front of the door to keep the cold out. He says I've grown fat since we last met.

Mr. WE. GONG: (Through interpreter) Not too fat. It looks like you've put on 12 pounds.

LANGFITT: Wenju's lifestyle hasn't changed much since he left the family home. He uses metal tongs to lower bricks of coal into the belly of an old stove that heats his house. He still tends to pigeons he keeps in a coop on the roof.

Wenju used to work in a state-owned wool factory, but when China's economy turned fiercely competitive in the 1990s, the factory went bankrupt. Wenju says one reason his wealthier brother has done better is because he has more of a head for capitalism. He thinks he's made much of his money playing China's rollicking stock market, which has attracted a huge number of small investors.

Mr. WE. GONG: (Chinese spoken)

LANGFITT: Do you have stocks? I ask. No, he says. Why not? I ask. He answers: The biggest reason? I don't have the brains to play the stock market, and I don't have the money.

After Wenju's factory collapsed, he took up cab driving, but his income kept falling. As we sit down to lunch in a nearby restaurant, he explains.

Mr. WE. GONG: (Through translator) In 2002, you could make a little money. Gas was cheaper, more people took taxis. Now, a lot of people have bought their own cars.

LANGFITT: People like Wenju's brother and his BMW. In fact, China's rapid growth has actually hurt cabbies. It's put more private cars on the road and pushed up gas prices.

When they lived together, Wenju and his brother Wencong saw each other every day. Now it's just a few times a year. And they don't seem as close.

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday on the calendar. Like Thanksgiving, families usually get together. But Wenju says he'll celebrate at home. He won't visit his brother with his big-screen TV and new luxury sedan.

Mr. WE. GONG: (Through translator) It's not very convenient. This year, it's impossible. I don't have a car.

LANGFITT: Tomorrow I'll explain what happened to the oldest Gong brother, Wenbiao. Of the three, he fared the worst.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Frank's report almost makes you see the Gong's neighborhood then and now. But if you really want to see it, go to NPR.org.

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