STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's begin this next report with a question: Why did you want to go back to China after six years away?
FRANK LANGFITT: Things are happening so fast, I wanted to see how people's lives were changing.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. He's in our studios. He used to live in China, and he went back recently. He's been telling us this week about three Chinese brothers whose stories tell us about China's changing economy. One's affluent now, one's not - and Frank, what happened to the third?
LANGFITT: Well, Steve, the third one didn't make it. You know, his name was Wenbiao, and he depended on the communist cradle-to-grave system but once that disappeared, he fell between the cracks. So I went back in January to see his wife and find out how things unraveled.
(Soundbite of knocking)
LANGFITT: (Chinese spoken)
Her name is Qian Lihua. She's a warm personality and a sentimental soul. Sitting in her cramped kitchen, she caught me up on their story. I first met the brothers in 2002. The government was knocking down their house as part of a huge redevelopment project. It's part of a broader trend - more and more Chinese families are splitting up and leaving multigenerational homes.
But instead of looking forward, as his brothers did, Wenbiao and his wife went backwards. Although the government gave them compensation for their old home, they couldn't afford new housing in Beijing. So they moved to inner Mongolia, where they had spent the Cultural Revolution during the '60s and '70s. They bought a big house and lived off the land.
Ms. QIAN LIHUA: (Through translator) In the outside yard, we planted some things - cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes.
LANGFITT: The Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe that cost at least a million lives. But it was also a time when people were equal, and the couple missed those days. Qian showed me photos of their home in inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. It was a cave with a front door and windows.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) This is the cave dwelling we lived in when we were sent down to the countryside.
LANGFITT: Her daughter, Gung Tao(ph), pipes up.
Ms. GUNG TAO (Daughter of Qian): (Chinese spoken)
LANGFITT: I was born in that cave.
When they returned to inner Mongolia a few years ago, the couple opened a dumpling restaurant, but soon Wenbiao fell ill. He began losing motor skills.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) When he ate, he couldn't use chopsticks or a spoon. Sometimes if you asked him a question, he'd say, ah, ah. Very simple. He was unable to write.
LANGFITT: The couple returned to Beijing. Wenbiao was scraping by on a tiny pension of $28 a month. The state-owned factory where he worked had gone bankrupt years before, and he was left without health care.
In April 2003, he had a stroke and was admitted to the hospital. Under communism, his factory would have paid for everything. But in China's new economy, there was no government program to help someone like him.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) He stayed half a month. The problem was financial. Afterwards, he left the hospital and died in July.
LANGFITT: Qian says without treatment, he just slipped away. She thinks if he'd had insurance, he might have lived.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) If we had money, he could have had surgery. Actually, illnesses like this can be remedied.
LANGFITT: Qian has her own health problems these days. She worked at the same factory where her husband had. When it went bankrupt, she lost her health care, too. She broke her foot years ago, but she could never afford to have it set.
She rolls back her sock to reveal a swollen ankle. The skin is purple, black and orange.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) In these last few years, while my husband was sick, it especially hurt. Still, I had to push him in a wheelchair to see doctors. After he died, I couldn't walk.
LANGFITT: Chinese have always relied on family for help, but the country's economic boom has broken up many ancestral homes, and some people have drifted apart. I went to talk to Wenbiao's two brothers.
Wencong - the middle one - has done the best since leaving the old family home. He has a nice apartment in the suburbs and a new BMW. I asked how he and his brothers got along as kids.
Mr. WENCONG GONG: (Through translator) When we were young, everything was quite good. We took care of each other. The older took care of the younger.
LANGFITT: But later there were strains. Wencong succeeded in China's emerging market economy working as a food wholesaler. He bought the latest and best home appliances. Wenbiao became jealous. He refused to let his son watch Wencong's new TV.
When Wenbiao became ill, Wencong did not lend him money, but their younger brother, Wenju, did.
Mr. WENJU GONG: (Through translator) I'd just built a house. I didn't have much money. I gave him about $700.
LANGFITT: Wenbiao's widow still owes Wenju $500.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) Sometimes he says, you don't have to pay it back, but now I'm not able to. I feel really embarrassed. We don't really see each other very much. I have nothing to say when I see him.
LANGFITT: Qian lived for more than three decades under the same roof with her brothers-in-law. After her husband's death, she spent one Chinese New Year with them.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) The first year, his little brother called and invited us to come. But after that, he never called again.
(Soundbite of people singing "Happy Birthday")
LANGFITT: One evening, Qian invited me to her 57th birthday party. The guests are all from her side of the family. Qian's family has had struggles of their own, but they remain close, and she depends on them. Qian doesn't own the house where she lives - her brother has lent it to her.
(Soundbite of applause)
LANGFITT: A week later, I meet Qian in the old neighborhood. The house she shared with the three Gong brothers had been leveled more than five years ago.
Where was your old house? I ask. Our old house was in this place, she says. She's standing in the courtyard of an apartment complex, gesturing towards a bicycle shed.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) Now you can't see our house. There is not even a hint it was here. The only thing that's left is that big tree by the street. When I came in, if it weren't for the tree, I wouldn't know I had ever lived here.
LANGFITT: She says the new housing is an improvement over the old family home, but she misses the days when several generations lived together. Referring to her brothers-in-law, she sounds wistful.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) Wencong, Wenju, there were lots of family members. The living conditions weren't very good, but affection between family members was especially warm.
LANGFITT: She says families here in general were closer then.
Ms. LIHUA: (Through translator) At mealtimes, there was a whole big table of people. Now that style is gone. There aren't many families like that now.
LANGFITT: I ask Qian who's responsible for her husband's death. I wonder if she'll blame the Chinese government or her brothers-in-law, but she doesn't.
Last year, the government began providing some health insurance to older, unemployed people. Qian's grateful for this. She just wishes her husband had lived long enough to benefit from it.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You can hear Frank's previous report about how the other Gong brothers have fared at NPR.org. And tomorrow, Frank will tell us a little bit more about how China's changing economy is changing ours.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.