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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In China, Workers Flirt With the Free Market

CHENGDU, China -- Cao Jiaqi, 45, said he has consistently made profits in stock trading.

Dressed in a fur-lined leather bomber jacket, Cao contended that Chengdu ought to be declared the "heart of finance" in southwest China.

"We've got a lot more bars, ballrooms and sports bicycles here than in northern China," said Cao. "Everything sells well here."

Cao said people in Chengdu are more ready to take risks. But he described his own philosphy in terms that sounded more like Confucian circumspection than Wall Street boldness: "Study companies carefully. Don't get too greedy. Take a balanced approach."

Cao, a repairman in a government printing house, said he is now required to work at his state job only a few hours a week, or "when they really need me."

As more than one-third of China's state-run enterprises operate in the red, are overstaffed and inefficient, some have loosened their grip on employees who can test the free-market waters.

Over a lunch that included such delicacies as duck intestines and rabbit ears, Cao explained that because of his short hours he is paid less at the printing house, but he gets to keep his apartment while pursuing a passion for stocks.

A Sichuan University professor explained that he too is spending less time at his state job and devoting himself to a small business that he opened recently.

"Toward the end of last year, the government made it much easier to open a private business," he said. "Just go to the business management department and pay 50 yuan, and you're welcome."

The get-rich instinct seems to have spread to farmers who arrive in Chengdu to seek a job or gawk at sights.

"I'm here to make money," said Zhang Min, 19, who came 160 kilometers to shine shoes in Chengdu. Zhang, who set up her stand near Chengdu's Jiuyan Bridge, said she often earns only 2 yuan, or 23 cents, a day. But she plans to save 200 yuan so she can take a hair-cutting course. Then, with more hard work, who knows what riches lie ahead?