Source of a Superpower: Old and New China Meet along the Yellow River

By Andreas Lorenz

Part 2: From Death Camp to Blossoming Oasis

The old death camp is near Jiayuguan, an hour's flight from Lanzhou. In this world, the past and the future live side by side near the crumbling Great Wall, built to protect the Chinese from nomadic horsemen. The city is also home to China's nuclear engineers, who work at a laboratory in the desert about 100 kilometers away. Every morning, at 7:40, a train takes engineers and workers to the secret nuclear center. At about 6 p.m., it brings them back to Jiayuguan.

Somewhere along a road that leads from the city to one of China's four space stations is a bumpy dirt road -- the path to the former Jiabiangou hunger camp.

At first glance, there is nothing to remind the visitor of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward. Today, Jiabiangou is a blossoming oasis on which corn, melons and chili peppers are grown. A sign at the entrance warns: "He who does not work properly today can look for a new job tomorrow." Quotations from the speeches of party leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are written in chalk next to the sign.

Not a single sign or even memorial stone offers a hint of what happened here. Medical students from Lanzhou collected all the corpses in 1960, and the skeletons were distributed to universities to be used as instructional material.

Mr. Chen, who is not related to the former teacher, runs the government farm.

He doesn't feel comfortable about having to open a dark chapter in China's history to foreign visitors. But since he holds Yang, the author, in high regard, he shows us the graves the prisoners dug and the trees they planted. "More than 1,000 people formed a chain here to transport stones," he says.

Then Chen mentions the "necessary sacrifices" that a country like China has to make in order to enable progress. He also finds a comparison that helps him clear his conscience. The construction of the Great Wall also claimed many lives, he says, "but it united the country."

In the teahouse in Lanzhou, the old teacher gazes across the Yellow River and a sea of buildings. "I don't believe in anything anymore," he says. Although the tea garden is large and almost empty, three men sit down at the next table and listen attentively. Author Yang speaks demonstratively and with a loud voice as he tells the story of Jiabiangou. "These young Stasi guys should hear what happened back then," he says, referring to the dreaded secret police of the former East Germany.

An Underground Inferno

The Chinese have yet another name for the great river. They call it "China's Sorrow," because of all the tragedies that have unfolded on its banks. Another 600 kilometers downstream from Lanzhou, China's troubled river seems to flow directly into hell.

There, on the path to Wuda, in Inner Mongolia, the Yellow River winds sluggishly past oases, through steppes and deserts and into a gray, moonlike landscape of dust and debris. There is not a blade of grass growing or an insect crawling here; even the birds have disappeared. The earth is boiling-hot beneath the surface -- so hot, in fact, that it can melt the soles of people's shoes if they stand still for too long. Sometimes the ground opens up and pulls people down into its fiery depths.

An environmental inferno covers an area of several square kilometers. Underground coal deposits have been burning here for more than 50 years. The fire ignited itself, and it keeps flaring up when oxygen enters abandoned mine shafts.

It is difficult to breathe the highly polluted air, and the rain is acidic. Many millions of tons of coal have already been burned at the site, where firefighters are slowly gaining control over the fire with the help of German experts. They are isolating sources of the fire with underground walls and shifting large volumes of earth in an effort to deprive the flames of oxygen.

An Industrial Giant in a Desert

On the edge of the Wuda inferno, workers have just paved a new road with concrete, as if to prove that nature will not get the better of them. New coalmines have already sprung up on the other side of the road, only a few meters from the existing coal fires. "It isn't dangerous here anymore," says Chen Zengfu, manager of the Second Huaying coalmine. "We go down to depths of up to 700 meters (2,300 feet)."

In the 1960s, Mao moved parts of his heavy and arms industry to this wasteland, hoping to protect it from a Soviet attack. The project was called "Third Line." Later on, farmers came to the area -- not always voluntarily -- to cultivate the desert along the Yellow River.

The smoke from these fossils of industry darkens the sky, while heavy trucks wheeze along potholed roads. Prostitutes wait for truckdrivers in bleak, tile-covered buildings. The Zhurong steel mill smolders on the bank of the Yellow River. A few hundred meters down the road, on a square in a village called Red Star, Second Unit, residents are preserving cabbage for the winter. "We can't breathe," they say. "We all have lung problems."

The mill pays the village 80,000 yuan (about €10,000) a year as compensation for the poor air quality. The farmers use the money to buy water from the Yellow River to irrigate their fields.

Modern industrial zones built in recent years, which are even more gigantic than those from the Mao era, line the horizon. Flights landing at the airport in the city of Wuhai pass over countless factories, smokestacks and cooling towers set against the backdrop of the Yellow River glittering in the afternoon sun.

Six-, eight- and 10-lane roads cut through the sand dunes. This is where China casts the concrete for prefabricated buildings in Beijing and Shanghai, molds the plastic for radios and TV sets, and hardens the steel for skyscrapers, bridges, cars and high-speed trains.

The city administration has just built a giant government building, two futuristic-looking stadiums, a university and an opulent party academy. Now it wants to tear down some recently finished apartment buildings because newer, more ambitious plans have replaced the older ones.

On the highest peak of the nearby mountains, workers have begun chiseling a bust of the legendary Mongol ruler Genghis Khan into the rock, just as the Americans did with several of their presidents in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The great conqueror will gaze out across the Yellow River and into the vast regions beyond.

China 's Dubai

Party officials in Wuhai are not alone. Their counterparts all along the Yellow River dream of elevating their cities into the ranks of important international metropolises.

Hardly anyone has bigger plans than the party leaders in Ordos, about 80 kilometers south of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia. Ordos is viewed as China's Dubai. Experts estimate that government-run and privately owned mines have generated more than $35 billion in revenues since 2010. At times, economic growth in the region has been twice as high as in the rest of the country.

And this trend is expected to continue. Engineers have discovered one-sixth of China's coal reserves and a third of its natural gas reserves in Ordos. Each of the city's 1.5 million residents already generates about $20,000 a year in revenue, more than in any other part of China.

The party has built a brand-new district near Ordos, complete with an army headquarters and a university for 8,000 students. The new district, called Kangbashi, is expected to house up to 300,000 people one day, although only a few thousand have moved there so far. Kangbashi is still a ghost town -- and a monument to megalomania on the steppes.

The Coal Barons

A few kilometers south of Kangbashi lies the main source of the region's wealth: coal. The area is dotted with blue-and-white shaft towers and silos. On video screens in a control tower, engineers monitor what happens underground in the state-of-the-art mine.

A narrow inlet in the Yellow River separates modern industrial China from its ugly underbelly. On the other side, private companies have dug tunnels into the ground. Fully loaded trucks struggle out of the gates of these unsafe miniature mines. The trucks are so old and rundown that every trip underground could be their last.

The miners who work at this mine live on a hill above it, in huts with iron stoves in the middle. The stench of communal toilets hangs in the air. The workers pay no rent, but there is only a small cafeteria for the entire settlement.

The owners of mines like these are partly responsible for the construction boom in China's cities. Yellow River coal barons, for example, have bought up entire neighborhoods of new buildings in the capital, Beijing. They usually pay in cash and leave the apartments empty, betting that prices will continue to rise.

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