Old and New China Meet Along the Yellow River


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.

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