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

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Part 3: Barely Getting By

Traveling along the lower course of the Yellow River is like being tossed back and forth between the past and the future in a broken time machine. Behind the dikes, there are villages that haven't changed in centuries and towns with Mao-era street names like "Iron and Steel." These places have no village squares, no bars and no cemeteries. The farmers bury the dead in their fields.

Ten years ago, the river became silted up for almost two-thirds of the year east of the provincial capital Jinan, but now the water glistens in the sun once again. The government regulates how much water the individual provinces can extract from the river, and industrial companies are now required to build modern irrigation canals for the region's farmers so that less water evaporates.

Three workers are shoveling away in front of a pumping station. The farmers behind the dike need water from the Yellow River for their corn and cotton fields. They have set off a small fireworks display in front of the dike to drive away the river's evil spirits.

Nearby, migrant workers making little more than €10 a day are stacking stones with their bare hands to reinforce the dike in case the river floods. Stone blocks are neatly stacked everywhere along the lower course of the Yellow River.

"The water is now drinkable," says Wei, a tofu vendor who drives his motorcycle through all of the riverside villages every morning. Fish are swimming in the river again, and the residents are killing and then collecting them by dipping electric cables in the water.

It's market day in a village called "Forge Square," where vendors are selling fruit, vegetables, cheap electronics and clothing. Old Mao caps can be had for the equivalent of €0.57, while other vendors sell traditional enamel bowls with garish floral patterns. "We are doing neither well nor poorly," says one farmer. "We have a few thousand yuan left over at the end of the year."

Duan, a 71-year-old knife-sharpener, sits by the side of the road in a blue jacket. "I make 500 to 600 yuan (€62 to €74) a month," he says. He needs the money because he doesn't want to be a burden on his children. "We farmers receive no pension in China," he says.

The party has lifted one major burden from the shoulders of Duan and his family: He no longer has to pay all of his medical bills himself. Like Duan, all 700 million of China's rural residents are now able to purchase health insurance.

Duan says that the insurance costs him the equivalent of €6 a year. In return, he gets 40 to 70 percent of his medical bills paid, whether he is treated as an outpatient or in a hospital. "I've already had the photo taken for the certificate," he proudly says.

The River's End

One hundred kilometers farther east, the Yellow River finally flows into the Bohai Sea, where a giant oil field was discovered about 50 years ago. The field is called "Victory," and today it is dotted with the burning flares of refineries and oil pumps swinging up and down like pendulums.

The government has established a nature reserve at the mouth of the Yellow River. There is also a futuristic-looking tourist center and pleasure boats offering tours into the bay, to the site where the brown water of the river meets the blue waters of the ocean. The skipper has to pay close attention to the depth sounder because, after running its course of more than 5,000 kilometers, the river is now less than half a meter deep.

The boat, the Dragon's Gate 688, has now gotten stuck in the mud with day-trippers on board. Another boat cautiously approaches the vessel to stir up the silt so that the boat will have enough water under its keel again. The maneuver succeeds after about an hour, and both ships chug off into the blood-red evening sun.

A little farther upstream, in the provincial capital Jinan, residents are flying kites between government buildings in the evening sky. Small light bulbs attached to the kites make them twinkle like stars.

Kites have been flown here for centuries. But today's China is no longer content with such traditional amusements.

In one corner of the square, loud music is screeching from a boom box. A group of dancers put on shoes with metal attachments. Then the residents of this city by the Yellow River tap-dance to the strains of Irish folk music.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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