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FENG HUI-XIU Factory manager's assistant, Beijing

"Feng Hui-Xiu made it clear that she didn't want to talk. But I really wanted to have a character at the Beijing Machine Tool Plant and I could see very quickly that she was a good talker," says producer Sue Williams. "So at one point, we were walking around the factory and I asked her if she had kids and she said she had a son of about 16. And she asked if I did. And I showed her a picture of my daughter and that softened her up. She wanted to talk about her son, Gu Feng, who clearly is the center of her life and heart."

When Williams first met 44-year-old Feng Hui-Xiu in 1998, Feng had been working at the Beijing Machine Tool Plant, a state-owned company, for almost 28 years.

By 1998, the plant -- and thousands like it across the country -- had fallen deeply into debt. Premier Zhu Rongji addressed the nation and said that most large- and medium-sized state-owned companies in China had to correct their financial situations in three years.

Feng and her colleagues were scared. When workers are laid off, they lose more than their jobs. Their health care and pensions disappear, too.


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It's 1999 and Feng's teenage son is increasingly a worry to her. He seems more interested in Western pop culture than in studying for the college-entrance exams.

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Over the next two years FRONTLINE cameras follow Feng as conditions grow more tense at work. And, at home, she is increasingly worried about her 16-year-old son, Gu Feng.

"A generation ago, before the reform movement, there was a 5,000-year-old cultural belief that a son must respect his parents," Feng said. "But things are so different with my son."

Gu Feng studying

Gu Feng studying

Like most of his friends, Gu Feng watches NBA games on satellite TV. He listens to Western rock music. Feng is dismayed at her son's lack of discipline and his eager materialism.

"Their generation lived through the Cultural Revolution," Gu Feng explained. "They 'ate bitterness.' They went through a lot while we've been spoiled growing up."

Over the next two years much changes for Feng and her family. Feng's husband leaves his job and puts all their savings into starting a private garage. And Gu Feng fails the college entrance exams. Feng takes advantage of a retirement package offered to older workers in heavy industry. She stops work and borrows money to pay for Gu Feng to repeat his courses. She also stays home to help him study.

By the end of filming in 2001, Gu Feng has passed the college-entrance exam and is studying for a degree in sports management to become a personal trainer. Feng has started working at her husband's garage and it's starting to make a profit.

Though Feng tells FRONTLINE the best days of her life were working at the state-owned plant, and at first she really missed it, she says she now must "face reality."

 

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