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

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The Yellow River, regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization, winds its way more than 5,000 kilometers from the Tibetan Plateau to its mouth in the Bohai Sea. SPIEGEL travelled the course of the river and discovered how quickly the country is pushing forward with its rise to superpower status -- and how ruthlessly.

Qinghai is the end of the world. The remote province between the Tibetan Plateau and the deserts in the north was long considered China's Siberia, where the rulers in Beijing sent their prisoners, both criminal and political.

The region is so remote that many labor camps have since been dismantled and moved to more accessible regions. In China's special form of socialism, even prison camps are expected to make a profit -- a tall order in forbidding Qinghai Province.

Qinghai, meaning "green sea," is named after the large salt lake in the eastern part of the province. But the term could also be used to describe the endless grasslands on which Tibetan nomads graze their herds of yak and sheep. Nowadays, most of the shepherds have traded in their saddles for moped seats.

From the provincial capital Xining, the road climbs steeply up to the roof of the world. Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind along the mountain passes, some more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) high. The Huang He, or Yellow River, China's "Mother River," has its source in this landscape of myths and mythical creatures, not far from the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region. The river is seen as a symbol of the entire nation, with its inwardly directed culture and a history stretching back thousands of years. "Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China" is a timeless maxim attributed to Yu the Great, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty. He is believed to have lived around 2,200 B.C. -- if he existed at all.

The Yellow River is to the Chinese what the Nile is to Egyptians, the Mississippi to Americans and the Rhine to Germans. Deeply symbolic monuments, statues of mothers holding babies in their arms, stand along its banks. The ancestors of the present-day Chinese are said to have carved the first characters into turtle shells near its muddy shore. The legendary Yellow Emperor lived near the Huang He, which was viewed with such reverence that a beautiful girl was sacrificed to the river once a year.

The river winds 5,464 kilometers (3,394 miles) through the vast country. The philosopher Confucius, whose concept of an all-encompassing "harmony" has since been turned into a state policy by Beijing's communists, was born near its banks. In 1935, during their war with the then-ruling Kuomintang government, Mao Zedong and his comrades retreated to the river, in the pale-yellow loess landscape of northern China. The liberation of Mao's forces, which had been surrounded by Chinese Nationalist soldiers, has assumed its place in the central heroic mythology of the Communist Party as the "Long March."

China's generals have sometimes even used the river as a weapon. In 1938, General Chiang Kai-shek blew up the dams near the city of Zhengzhou to stop the advance of Japanese troops, causing the deaths by drowning of hundreds of thousands -- friend and foe alike.

A Land of Reinvention

Today, the Yellow River is the most important source of water for 140 million people and thousands of factories. Along its course are vast deposits of mineral resources -- coal, oil, natural gas and rare earths -- which are becoming increasingly important for China's economic boom.

A trip along the Yellow River reveals the enormous costs of China's ascent to the ranks of the most powerful nations on Earth, how ruthlessly its rulers have treated their own people and how recklessly they have been in their over-exploitation of nature. But it also shows the enormous amount of energy with which this country -- like the river -- is flowing forward. A trip along the Yellow River also makes it clear that China has confidently resumed its ancestral position after a century of humiliation at the hands of hostile powers.

The trip to the headwaters of the Yellow River passes through Madoi, a small market town on the Tibetan Plateau 4,300 meters above sea level, where the houses are freshly whitewashed and a new police headquarters building is under construction. The Tibetan nomads from the surrounding region come to Madoi to buy grain, medicine and other essential items.

Migrant workers from other parts of China have also made their way to the region, where the thin air makes breathing difficult and too much physical exertion causes headaches. They include people like Li Bing, 23, from Anhui province in eastern China. For the last five years, he has sewn and sold temple decorations and prayer flags in his tiny shop. There is a simple reason, he says, for the fact that he, a Chinese non-believer, sells Tibetan devotional objects: "The Tibetans don't quite get the professional side of it, with the ordering and logistics," he says.

Li has now brought his wife to Madoi and invested the equivalent of about €20,000 ($25,000) in the business. The couple lives in an alcove above the shop, where Li also keeps the sewing machine he uses to make prayer flags. "Life is cheap here," they say. "We won't return to Anhui until we've saved a million yuan." That would be about €120,000, or enough to make Li and Yu wealthy people in China. It's quite possible that they will achieve their goal.

An Eternal but Changing Landscape

Many rivulets stream down from the Bayan Har Mountains in the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, flow together and then pass through two mountain lakes, Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake. On a hill above the lakes, the Communist Party has erected a monument to the river that looks like the stylized horns of a yak. The inscription on a copper plaque describes the importance of the river for China's identity: "The Yellow River is the cradle of the Chinese people. The Yellow River region is the birthplace of the magnificent, ancient Chinese culture. The spirit of the Yellow River is the spirit of the Chinese people."

But even here, in this remote place high in the mountains, the world is no longer what it used to be. "It used to be much colder than it is today," says a national park ranger guarding the road leading to the two lakes. "Sometimes the snow was so high that I couldn't open my door in the morning," he says. "Today, it only reaches my ankles." The unpaved road to the banks of the lakes is currently being repaired because melting permafrost has caused the road's surface to sink.

But the belching smokestacks and car exhaust fumes 4,000 meters below, in the country's interior, are not the only thing to blame for these environmental changes. The Tibetan herdsmen also play a role in the destruction of their region. Owing to strong demand for costly cashmere wool, in recent years, the nomads have been driving bigger and bigger herds across the grasslands. The cashmere goats are particularly aggressive grazers, tearing out stalks of grass with their roots, which causes the ground to become more sandy.

Now fences block access to the nomads' traditional grazing grounds. The government is resettling the herdsmen in other areas, which is creating bad blood with the Tibetans.

The Gesawang Monastery, at the entrance to Madoi, consists of a few stone houses and several nomad tents. It is the religious center of the Yellow River headwaters region. An old monk leads visitors into the main building and tells his story. The Chinese imprisoned him from 1961 to 1980, he says.

Four photos of the Dalai Lama are displayed in the prayer room, one behind an empty bottle of Tuo liquor with artificial red flowers in it. The old man has even set up a symbolic chair for the Dalai Lama, which he has also decorated with a photo.

Displaying photos of the Dalai Lama is strictly forbidden in the Tibet Autonomous Region. But, in neighboring Qinghai, the government rules with a somewhat looser grip, and pictures of the Tibetan monk -- berated by the Chinese government as a "divider" and "traitor" -- can still be displayed. The Dalai Lama, in exile in India since 1959, is also a son of the Yellow River. He was born almost 77 years ago, in the village of Taktser, in Qinghai.

Shedding Light on Old Secrets

Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, is about 200 kilometers away. Since the 1950s, the city has grown to become an important center for the oil and chemical industries, and it now has a population of 3.5 million. For a long time, environmental protection was not even a concept here. The city's factories and all of its households simply dumped their sewage and wastewater into the Yellow River. Sewage-treatment plants are only now being built for residential areas.

A cable car takes visitors across the river to the White Pagoda. For his conversation with SPIEGEL, the writer Yang Xianhui, 66, has chosen a nearby teahouse, and not just because of the nice view of the city and the oldest railway bridge across the Yellow River, which German engineers built in the early part of the last century. Yang also feels that he won't be bothered at the teahouse. He has made it his mission to shed light on China's dark past.

Yang wants to document the atrocities of a part of Chinese history that the Communist Party would prefer to keep under wraps even today: Mao's "Great Leap Forward" at the end of the 1950s. At the time, China's leader tried to radically industrialize the country, aiming to catch up economically with the likes of Great Britain "within 15 years." The Communist Party ordered farmers to build small blast furnaces in their fields and make steel. At the same time, it required them to produce more and more grain for the cities. The Great Leap Forward ended in a catastrophe, with up to 45 million Chinese dying of starvation.

Encouraged by Deng Xiaoping, who would later become an economic reformer, the party sent about half a million alleged "right-wing deviants" to re-education camps. The camp inmates, often educated city dwellers, were accused of questioning the policies of the Communist Party. Many did not survive the ordeal.

One of the camps was in the town of Jiabiangou in the Gobi Desert. Yang, the author, tracked down survivors of the camp and published their stories in a small Shanghai literary magazine, whose editors ignored the bans imposed by censors. On this morning, Yang has brought along Chen Zonghai, a spry, 79-year-old former teacher. Of the Jiabiangou labor camp's roughly 3,000 inmates, he was one of only a few to survive.

Chen is bald and wears large glasses. It was his bad luck to have been "too quiet" in the self-criticism meetings that were customary at the time. The party used these meetings to examine the class consciousness of its subjects, and party officials accused Chen of not having denounced anyone. As a result, he was loaded onto a truck on the banks of the Yellow River and taken to Jiabiangou together with other "right-wing deviants."

The insidious thing about this form of detention was that it was not limited by time. "We were expected to work hard, day and night, and to re-educate ourselves," Chen recalls. But the camps developed into death camps, as the already scant food rations became smaller and smaller until there was no food at all. The guards looked on as the prisoners starved to death, one after another.

Chen pulls a blade of grass out of the ground. "This is edible," he says. "I used to dream of sumptuous meals back then. It was the winter of 1959, and more and more of my fellow prisoners were dying." The horrific episode finally ended in 1961, when the authorities released the few remaining survivors.

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