Behind The Bamboo Curtain

A few hours down the road, I see a sign painted in blue and white on a long brick wall. It's one of the more popular propaganda slogans that fill rural China. The fears of government officials are writ large out in the sticks — the more worried they are about something, the more frequently it shows up on signs.

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.

San Lou village, 439 kilometers from Beijing

A football field long and a few blocks wide, San Lou squats alongside Highway 108, the town's only real street. Small homes dot the roadside, thin ribbons of smoke float from chimneys. Supper's on. Night's falling. Mountains rise behind the villagers, throwing shadows across the narrow lanes.

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.

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