Old and New China Meet Along the Yellow River

PHOTO: The Yellow River origin which flows through Tibet.Hiroyuki Nagaoka/Getty Images
The Yellow River origin which flows through Tibet.

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.

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. 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