Story by Wright Thompson
More than 2,500 kilometers separate us from our destination: Chengdu, the dominant city in China's Wild, Wild West. A driver, interpreter and I are setting out to look at a sprawling, complex country through the prism of the 2008 Olympics. In front of us is a week of white-knuckle mountain roads, countless oxen, a Rolls-Royce, homes made of mud, skyscrapers made of steel, a dreary coal-town wedding, a forest of smokestacks, a quilt of rice paddies, hundreds of villages and cities filled with people, each with a story to tell about the hopes and dreams of the real China and what, if anything, the Summer Games can do to make those dreams come true.
Behind us lies Beijing. With just a year until the opening ceremony and all the metaphors of rebirth that go along with it the construction in the city is breathtaking. New roads keep up with all those new cars, enough that lifelong Beijingers often get lost, sometimes finding themselves at the end of an uncompleted freeway. Entire ancient neighborhoods are bulldozed by day. At night, sparks rain down the sides of buildings, welders working around the clock, replacing the old with the new. Everywhere you look, there are bundles of steel and towers of wood and stacks of bricks, stretching to the horizon like soldiers, raising the obvious question: Where does all of this stuff come from?
The nerve center for the Games is a marble-floored skyscraper not far from the two main Olympic stadiums, and not far from the start of Highway 108. The sunlight makes the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games headquarters glow, as though it's generating its own energy, which, in a way, it is. It's drawing a road map for places like Chengdu, and all the villages and boomtowns in between. It's saying: This is what the new China should look like.
"We are building a harmonious society," BOCOG spokesman Weide Sun says. "You have only seen half the story in Beijing. But when you travel to the western part of China, you're going to see there are many, many areas that have difficulty even finding clean water. There are still lots of challenges for China. The goal is to build a well-to-do society, and the Olympic Games will be a milestone event for that."
Those are the stakes, as defined by the government itself. The Olympics are clearly more than a sporting event, and next August will be a historic moment for China, symbolizing the strides of the past decade and pointing the way for a century to come. But will the Games help bridge this growing gap between the new and the old, using sports to give people common ground? Or will the growth represented by the Olympics split the country in two, haves on one side, have-nots on the other? The answers to these questions will determine the future of the world's fastest-growing economic superpower, and they lie in front of us, covered in soot, growing in emerald green fields. That's where China's Olympic spirit lives, beyond Beijing's sea of merchandise stands and the jungle of cranes.
It's out along Highway 108.
This one reads: "New Socialist Countryside."
With China growing so fast, with the images beamed down to television sets filled with sudden wealth and modern conveniences, the government is trying to assure the 900 million subsistence peasants in China's interior that they haven't been forgotten. Not everyone is buying. Again, check the signs. In one small town our first day on the road, graffiti covers a wall in the middle of a village. On it, we see the first whispers of anger over the development initiated by the 2008 Games.
"It's not worth it," one writes.
"The wrong people benefited," says another. "Ten thousand people suffered."
It's not the signs we see that are most telling, though; it's the ones we don't, namely, not a single official sign for the Olympics in rural China along 108 so far. Indeed, in the next week, we will see exactly one sign for the Games that is not in a city. But the cities, they are full of signs, thousands of them, each one connected to an advertisement. The Olympics, it seems, are mostly about selling things, about a consumer revolution. The peasants don't have the money to buy these trappings of modern life.
We drive through the mountains. Around a corner, there's one final sign of the day.
It reads: "STOP."
Two hours wait, we're told. They are actually building a new portion of Highway 108 in front of us. Traffic idles until the blacktop cools.
While we watch them build our road, a young peasant named Sun Bin approaches us. He's 16 years old, with a round belly and face. We're taking a picture and, amidst the babble of Mandarin, he says, "Go," in English. I turn around.
He grins and invites us to his village.
Sun walks through the town, soon arriving at his house. It's made of mud, and he shares it with his grandparents. The two-room hut is dark. Against one wall is the large, wood-heated kang a traditional bed made of bricks or clay. They all sleep here. Nearby, a calendar lets them know that today is not a good day to bury the dead. It's not a good day for much of anything.
Sun says the village has no natural resources to sell to the cities, nothing that can make it a part of the new China, not even as a place to be exploited and then forgotten. The village lives in a different century. The average family makes less than $200 a year. Folks are more concerned with water than the GNP.
"There used to be a big river and we'd swim in the river," Sun says. "Now there's no river anymore."
The mountain stream that fed the village dried up, too. The faucets sit parched and rusted. The villagers can't afford a pump to run water from the local well to each house. Sun and his grandparents have a tiny television; every night they see so many things they cannot afford. Simple things. Things like pork.
"We feel sorry for ourselves," he says. "We see wealthy people eating fish and meat, but we only have corn and potatoes. Of course we feel bad and feel jealous."
The television also brings breathless accounts of the coming Olympic Games. Sun had never heard of the Olympics until Beijing's bid was successful. Now, he has a vague notion of what will actually happen in a year's time. He is certain of one thing: It will not benefit him. Like so many things in a country he recognizes less each day, the Olympics live in the city. Meat, fish, games these are things for people with money.
"This is a very poor village and if people get by, that's a good day," he says. "Nobody cares about the Olympics."
The peasants only eat what they grow. Sun's grandparents, in their 70s, still work in the fields. His grandmother is a short woman, with white hair and a sturdy frame. She has lived her entire life in this tiny place. When things seem hopeless, she remembers when the Japanese occupied the area in the 1930s and '40s. That was worse.
"When I was young," she says, "I had to go to other villages to beg for food. Some rich people would have extra food and throw it into the plate for dogs, and we'd pick it up."
People still go to other, wealthier places looking for a way to live. Life can't be sustained much longer in rural towns like San Lou.
"If people have money," Sun says, "they will move to the city. People without money, they stay."
He stands up in the darkened space that serves as living room and bedroom. He wants to walk through town. Outside, the last few rays of sunshine light the narrow alleys. Flies move in bunches like paparazzi. First, he points to the town well. It's by the big cement roller that can turn rice to flour. Without this supply of water, San Lou would likely dry up and blow away. The village's entire future is down that hole. History suggests it won't last long. But Sun still holds on to hope.
"This well will never dry up," he says, at once both defiant and na´ve.
He keeps walking, stopping in a small courtyard by a walnut tree with flags hanging from the branches. This is sacred ground.
"Magic tree," he says quietly.
The villagers believe the spirit who lives in this tree will give them a peaceful life. And when a day seems especially hard, or they feel especially left behind, the villagers of San Lou come and stand beneath these broad branches and ask for help. As Sun looks up, a small girl throws something at the tree. He wheels around and glares. It is foolish to anger the gods.
Trucks line up for a kilometer, then two, then three, most carrying coal to power the cities. Some are loaded with bricks and steel. Where does all this stuff come from? It comes from here.
The scene is something out of "Mad Max"; this must be what America was like 150 years ago. I have a front row seat to an industrial revolution. The highway is torn beyond repair by the overloaded 18-wheelers. In some places, Highway 108 is nothing but a mudhole. There isn't a road, per se, just a space with no buildings. Where there is road, clouds of coal dust float and dance a foot above it. The grime sticks to everything. Trucks stretch for 20 kilometers, then 40. Then 60 kilometers of trucks, lined up, two wide in some places, bumper-to-bumper.
The drivers pull into oncoming traffic without hesitation; this stretch of highway isn't notorious as one of the most dangerous roads in the world for nothing. Soon the traffic grinds to a halt in both directions. With the headlights blinding us, Singing Songs tries to slip past two parked trucks blocking the road. There is barely enough room for our Jeep. We are in the mountains, on a curve, with no guardrail. He climbs out to look at the sheer cliff, then back in the Jeep to make his way forward. Half the right-side tires are hanging off the road. Somehow, we make it. That dance repeats itself a half-dozen times. We move kilometer by slow kilometer into the belly of the beast.
Black-smeared faces poke out into the glare of headlights, then disappear back into the shadows. Men sleep beneath parked trucks. Others squat in the swirling clouds of coal dust to slurp down noodles, to nurse a warm beer. Their eyes are wide in the halogen glow. They are thin, with hollow cheeks and hacking coughs. Finally, worn out, we sleep for a few hours in a ragged roadside motel. The next morning, we wake to find the trucks still backed up, stretched in both directions as far as we can see.
An old man named Yan, with thin fingers and a thinner physique, speaks for the group. They are all excited about the start of the Olympics. The government is shutting down this mine for three weeks during the Games. The miners will get a vacation.
So you can watch on television?
The old man and the other miners laugh.
No, he explains, shaking his head. This is such dangerous work, the state doesn't want to risk a catastrophic accident resulting in bad press. Mining in China for gold, coal, iron and anything else that can be forcibly extracted from the Earth can be fatal. A miner a day dies in these parts.
Payouts to the families of killed miners are factored into budgets, and those payments keep the salaries of the workers low. Competition for jobs a dangerous job is better than no job drives those salaries even lower. When Yan first came here 15 years ago, he made about $1,300 a month. Now, it takes him three months to earn that much, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He is being left behind. And not just left behind by the far-off fantasy world of Beijing. Left behind in this courtyard.
Not 10 paces away, a miner named Liu listens. He once worked for the government gold mine. Then, in 1995, he decided to mine for himself. "There is more freedom if I work for myself," he says.
Private business has spurred growth in the town. Liu bought a television set made by Changhong, an Olympic sponsor. He bought a Volkswagen Santana, which he doesn't really know how to drive. He built a new house, with a big courtyard for animals and some vegetables. His family isn't rich, but they aren't just subsisting anymore.
"The road condition is better," he says. "The houses are better. In general, life is better. Ten years ago, people still lived in the yellow-earth mud houses."
Right now, he says, there's a ban on private gold mines. But national bans don't mean much out in the provinces, where the whim of local power brokers carries more weight than any edict handed down from Beijing. "If I'm caught, I'm not afraid," Liu says. "I'm well-connected, and I know everybody in the village."
From afar, Liu has been following the Beijing 2008 campaign. He isn't that interested, but, as a businessman, he has respect. "The Olympics have nothing to do with my life," he says. "What they are doing is just to make some money."
Squatting a few feet away, Yan, the old man, says the Olympics are Beijing's business, though he does hope to have one connection, which is one more than the peasants of San Lou. Maybe, he says, they will use the gold he helps blast out of the Earth to make the medals. He knows the highest honor an athlete can receive is a gold medal, and his gold, he wants you to know, is 100 percent pure.
Soon, it's time to go. Behind the dormitory, workers push tons of rock. Above the mine face where darkness is broken only by a swaying, naked bulb five red flags hang limp, twisted around their poles, all of them turned pinkish-white by the sun and the rain and the smoke. They are flags of warning.
Yan continues sipping his tea, lighting another cheap cigarette. He has 20 days off after six straight months in the mine; he'd lost so much weight the bosses were worried. He looks ancient, with the hard years underground wrapped around him like a bundle of yesterday's news.
Before leaving, we ask how old he is.
"Fifty-three," he says.
There is a tunnel ahead.
Coal dust and smog block out the sun. It's morning but it feels like dusk. Kilometer by kilometer, we close on Linfen, the most polluted city in the world. Smokestacks line the road like telephone poles. The white road markers are stained black. The red bricks are stained black. The faces of the people we pass are stained black.
The tunnel gets closer.
We pass a cement factory. Then a brick factory, one of many we've seen in the past hour, some of them known to be manned by children kidnapped and forced into grueling labor. Every so often, an impromptu Delta Force of angry fathers rescue their children. The hours are long and hellish here in the place hope forgot. Austin, the interpreter, calls her husband in Beijing. "It's horrible," she tells him. "It's a disaster zone. Everything is black. I don't want to get out of the car. It's shocking."
We pass a wedding procession, a train of black Audis covered in red ribbons and balloons. This should be a joyous day. But the air is black and the future is bleak. "I feel sorry for those newlyweds," Austin says.
Finally, we're inside. The tunnel seems to be about a kilometer or two long, straight as an arrow. The air is so thick with pollution and coal dust that we can't see. Headlights don't help much. We hear a truck rushing toward us before we can pick it out of the blackness. Singing Songs slows. We are driving toward the most polluted city in the world, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
The three 20-somethings eating lunch upstairs at the New Hunan are like young men anywhere. They play video games by the hour, which their wives tolerate. Barely. The guys met online. They make grand plans for getting matching tattoos of the god of death. They love speed metal. One of them runs the city's pickup basketball league; another is the star player.
And, like young men everywhere, there is one thing coveted above all others.
"I want to own a Hummer," Zhao Kaihong says.
This is Linfen. Home to at least one Rolls-Royce and two Bentleys. Most polluted city in the world. Coal boomtown, like Pittsburgh in the glory days of U.S. Steel. One day, the big-spending mine owners will be China's Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Mellons. They will have plazas and universities and arenas named in their honor. Presently, they are newly wealthy barons who buy sports cars they rarely take outside. The three young men and their peers breathlessly track their every move.
Dreams are close enough to touch. The Rockefellers-to-be roll down the street in Porsche SUVs, wearing the same trendy clothes, because when one coal-mine millionaire gets something, the rest simply must get it, too. That's how the black Audi A6 fell from favor overnight. Someone bought an A8.
"The coal mine owners," says Liu Xinyu, the league director, a skinny young man with glasses, "they find a villa they like and pay for everything in cash."
Zhao, the league's best player who goes by the screen name Cocofish, nods.
"In Linfen, when the coal mine owners want to buy something, they don't just buy one or two apartments," Cocofish says. "They buy the whole building. Then, as a gift, they give it to the local officials."
All this consumption makes the young men hungry for their piece of the Chinese dream. So many things are happening so quickly now that inertia feels like a million miles an hour in reverse. They want all those goods advertised with the Beijing 2008 logo alongside. They want them 10 minutes ago. The Olympic Games sell hope, progress and a future, all of which they desperately wish to buy.
If progress is on one side of the scale, destruction is on the other, and all three see the price paid for a shot at wealth. It's a steep one. As Cocofish says, coal is the best and worst thing to happen to their city. Twenty years ago, the air was good. Industrialization changed that. The third guy at the table, a local business reporter named Duan Jun, gets nosebleeds from the pollution. Cocofish had to move back to Linfen to take care of his mother; she, like so many, is suffering from lung disease. "Everybody in Linfen has chronic throat infection," he says.
But there is hope. The air is slowly improving. Some experts even think Linfen has given up its long-held title, having to settle now for a top-five spot in the rankings of most polluted cities, which means it's still worse than any place most Americans have ever been. Severe national government crackdowns have closed some of the worst polluters. A new, wildly popular mayor cracked down even further. The guys can now play basketball outdoors. And, since they're young professionals, there's even better news: They can wear white shirts again. A year ago, because of pollution, a white collar wouldn't be white by lunchtime.
In this new Linfen, they play PS3 (good) and debate China's chances in the Olympic basketball tournament (bad). They go five-on-five, full court, first team to make six buckets. They wait for next August. They dream impossible dreams. They believe those dreams can come true.
"My big plan," Cocofish says. "First, a Hummer. Second, an apartment."
We are headed for a small village not on the maps, looking for a brave peasant who fought the developers. We stop and ask for directions countless times. Finally, we are close.
"Next bridge," someone tells us.
We cross. The road narrows. It turns to gravel. We park outside a house. The sign tells us we're in the right place, but the door is locked. So we wait. The air smells fresh, like a Utah trout stream. A noise catches our attention it's a bird chirping. We haven't heard a bird chirp in days.
Down the road, someone approaches, getting larger and larger until it's clear he's headed straight for us.
We've found our man.
Duan Zhiqiang sits down in his living room on a small wooden stool. He lights a cigarette, rolls up his pant legs and begins telling how corrupt local officials tried to sell the villagers' farmland to developers, who were going to turn it into a golf course, of all things.
"What are we going to do?" the peasants asked.
"You can be caddies," the developers replied.
Land grabs are common. In every province, local citizens protest and, in some cases, riot when their land is taken. What happened here was typical. The developers offered the local government $5,600 per person for the land. The government was going to pay out $1,100 a person, pocketing the rest, leaving the villagers without enough money to move and without enough land to feed themselves. It is happening everywhere, as "progress" creeps in from the cities.
"We are in a battle," Duan says.
The golf course was a bridge too far. A golf course? Duan wasn't having it. He grew up here. Lived all his 52 years here. His brother, a Communist Party official, lives next door in a much nicer house. Duan himself had been a teacher and a farming team leader, a respected man in town. So he did some research, found the Chinese laws forbidding stealing land from peasants. He copied them and passed them around to villagers.
This royally ticked off local officials. He was jailed for 48 hours until the other production team leaders wrote impassioned letters on his behalf.
He continued the fight. Village cell phones were tapped. Meetings were secretly recorded. Allies were bought off. When the local pressure got too great, he went north and hid in the city of Xi'an for six months. His wife often fainted because of the stress. Police monitored his house almost every day.
"My family was not very happy about what I did," he says.
His biggest fear was dying. Those who stand up to developers sometimes simply disappear. A stern television warning echoed in his ears the whole time: "Anybody who hurts the county's development will be severely punished." He imagined his family never finding his body.
"In this region, a lot of people die in the name of development," he says, though such claims are hard to prove or disprove. "If the local government wants to develop and you are against them, they hire some gangsters, and they beat you to death and use cement to bury you."
Finally, after writing letters to the Xinhua news agency the Communist Party wire service that serves as de facto voice of a nation a story appeared praising Duan's actions in defending his village. He had done what once would have been impossible: taken on local strongmen and won. It came at a price. His family likely will never get over the stress. The developers had already destroyed the crops in hopes of starting construction.
At least the village has peace. For the moment. But there are other developers out there, marching from Beijing and Chengdu. One day, they will arrive. The peasants are fighting a war they will eventually lose. It's a war against the developers' taking their land, a war against irrelevance, a war against progress. A war, the astute among them realize, against many of the things these Olympic Games symbolize.
"The countryside won't benefit from the Olympics at all," Duan says. "You can just tell."
In this little hamlet, where birds chirp and sons farm the land their fathers farmed, the Olympics are just another reminder that China is leaving them behind. "I think we were forgotten," he says. "We are forgotten. I think we are forgotten by the government and forgotten by the policy. I'm very worried."
We're in the mountains again, but this time it isn't postapocalyptic. Little groups of clay-shingled houses, with their sweeping rooflines, huddle together in the elbows of valleys. Trickles of smoke waft from chimneys. Beekeepers check on their boxes by the side of the road. It's like driving through the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" movie set.
In the forests above us, pandas eat the tops of the bamboo. We enter another tunnel. This time, there's light at the end. And rich greens and browns. And blue sky. As we drive, I wonder what the future holds for this place. Will development come this far? Will this one day be a maze of smokestacks and coal trucks?
"Is this what Shanxi used to look like?" I ask Singing Songs and Austin.
"I guess so," Austin says. "I guess before the coal."
She tells me, 40 years ago, songwriters wrote about the beauty of Shanxi home to Linfen and the mines. I look out the window, at these little pieces of old China, these wonderful anachronisms. Progress is coming. A recent World Wildlife Federation report about this area warns: Economic development continues to creep up the valleys. One piece of prime panda habitat outside the reserve is about to be split in two by a 10-kilometer-long reservoir behind the planned Fujiang hydroelectric dam. The dam will power Mianyang, a city recently earmarked as China's very own Silicon Valley, and the provincial capital, Chengdu.
Our destination, almost the last of the trip, is Mianyang, with its sparkling clean streets and electronics factories. We drive along the narrow road, which disappears into the mountains behind us, getting smaller and smaller, the crenellated guardrails making it seem like a long section of the Great Wall, winding, twisting, snaking, stretching further and further into the past.
Whichever clue works. It's not hard to figure out the people in this bustling tech-town are jacked about next summer's Games and the rising China they represent. It's what they're talking about in the trendy cafes.
"China hosting the Olympics is an opportunity for China to show the world its strength," says Mr. Li, the deputy secretary of the local Communist Party. "And the torch passing through Mianyang makes the people very proud. It's proof of the country's power."
He's sitting at his desk on the second floor of the sports school. His office has hardwood floors a seldom-seen luxury. Talking to a foreigner about something as important as the Olympics freaks him out: He spills tea all over the floor trying to pour some for his guests, and his leg taps a mile a minute beneath the heavy wooden desk. Giving out his first name makes him uneasy.
In the classrooms down the hall, students finish up their work before practice starts for the day. They are training the next generation of Olympians here. Two signs in the lobby watch over the athletes. The first tells them their task: "Carry on the Olympic Sports Spirit." The second lays out the goals for this entire community. It lists the 10 steps to becoming a "civilized city."
To the deputy secretary, the awarding of the torch is proof the city has been developing properly. It's a nod from Beijing. "Being a torch city will make more people know about the city," Li says. "More business people and experts will pay attention to Mianyang."
The 4 o'clock bell rings and the students bound down the stairs to the practice fields. Two girls stop to primp in front of a mirror. A group of guys goes straight to the basketball court. Others gather on the track. The deputy secretary goes down to watch, sucking on a cigarette. Chinese pop music plays on the speakers.
One girl runs past him, breathing hard, pigtails bouncing. She's digging deep, catching up with the pack. Halfway down the backstretch, she pulls ahead. Then she doubles her lead, then triples it, really huffing and puffing, grabbing her throat. The deputy secretary takes another drag, watching her run, ignoring the pain, head up, eyes bright. Out on the road, trucks loaded with electronics rumble past.
The last stretch of road brings a bit of everything: crops and smokestacks, bicycles and coal trucks, bland suburbs and picturesque villages. I ask Singing Songs whether he'd ever go back the factory where he once worked. He shakes his head.
"Why?" I ask him.
"Because," he says, pointing out at the road winding in front and behind us, a road that can take you not just across a country but back in time.
We've driven the equivalant of New York to Dallas, and the numbers next to Chengdu are getting smaller on the signs. This city is like the Denver of China: metropolitan, artsy, modern, all the things that Beijing wants the western cities to be. Soon, the Olympic advertisements start again. That's how we know we're close to an urban area. The 16-year-old peasant from San Lou was right: The 2008 Games live in the cities.
In two days, a provincial party official will say, earnestly and with a straight face, "All of China is excited about the Olympics." But, after a week out on Highway 108, it's clear this isn't true. New China is excited. Old China isn't. This simple question Are you excited about the Olympics? is actually a much more complicated one in disguise, one that gets to the heart of modern China. It's many questions, really. Are you moving forward or being left behind? Do you have something to offer? Are you the future or the past? Are you a have or a have-not?
These thoughts fade away as the skyline grows larger. We follow the signs to the city center, dominated by a monument to the man who founded the People's Republic, and finally we come to the end of our time on Highway 108. It continues straight, all the way to Kunming, through black soot and green fields. We take a right at the Starbucks, driving past the Bulgari and Cartier boutiques, down toward the statue of Mao.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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