XUS HAVE WESTERN TASTE

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BEIJING-If Xu Cunyao has his way, he buys American.

Like millions of other middle-class Chinese consumers, Mr. Xu, a college English professor, budgets, saves and even schemes to afford imports flooding China's fast-growing market.

Just five years ago, he recalls, Western consumer goods were too expensive for most middle-class Chinese. But economic reforms have put more imported goods on store shelves and more money in Chinese pockets. Hollywood gum, for example, is a treat for Mr. Xu's daughter at 70 cents, seven times the cost of a Chinese chewing gum. The family's toothpaste, Colgate, is also luxury priced at $1.41 compared to a local brand's 35 cents.

"If Chinese can afford it, they will choose Western products," said Mr. Xu. "Middle-class families have their ways to get imports," he said, adding, "Of course, the big-buck Chinese can buy at expensive stores."

Urban per capita income in 1993 in China was $275, up 10% from 1992. Rural per capita income was $108, up 3%. According to government statistics, about 60 million Chinese, or 7% of the population, live below the poverty line.

As a professor on a limited salary at an English-language school he does not want to name, Mr. Xu and his wife Liu Jinfeng and their 22-year-old daughter, student Xu Li, live in a modest three-bedroom apartment in the Haidian district in north Beijing with no hot water and little heat in winter.

His salary is just over $81 a month, while his wife, retired from her job as a translator, contributes her $35 monthly pension. The family gets free medical care and rents its apartment for a minimal $3 each month, although monthly subsidies for books, food, haircuts and even washing at hot-water baths were phased out at the beginning of the year. In turn, Mr. Xu's salary increased almost 40% to its present level.

Like many Chinese taking advantage of new market freedoms, Mr. Xu earns extra money doing part-time English translation work. The additional increase, which he doesn't want to disclose, goes toward occasional family entertainment, such as a trip to McDonald's, or to help his only other child, Jing, 27, who is studying accounting in the U.S. and who sends them products.

"We haven't used a Chinese toothbrush for five years," Mr. Xu said proudly.

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